At the Sept. 2-4 Third High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, the international community reaffirmed the importance of development assistance to reducing poverty and improving the lives of marginalized communities.
Participants welcomed the presence of civil society at the meeting in Ghana’s capital Accra. And although the conference’s call for action includes new donor commitments and pushes for closer cooperation between aid recipients and donors, many stakeholders remain concerned that the Millennium Development Goals will be unattainable by 2015.
The meeting followed up on the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, spearheaded in 2005 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to assess and improve the impact of development assistance. The Paris Declaration called on partner countries to implement development strategies, align aid with national priorities, harmonize aid procedures, monitor performance and strengthen accountability.
Many development experts see Accra as a positive first step.
“Accra was successful in putting partner countries’ perspectives at the center of the dialogue on aid effectiveness,” said Rocio Castro, lead economist of the World Bank, in an email. “I also sensed a strong commitment from partner countries to take the lead in moving the aid effectiveness agenda forward.”
Regional consultations in preparation for Accra highlighted the importance of using partner country systems to deliver aid, Castro indicated. Accra, then, brought new aid actors to the table, including official providers of development assistance, private foundations and civil society organizations, he noted.
“Also, the fact that countries like China and India participated in the forum is highly significant and bodes well for improving coordination in the future,” Castro added.
Arjun K. Karki, international coordinator from Least Developed Countries Watch in Nepal, argued that the participation of civil society and independent researchers and think tanks has “contributed vastly” to the discussions and “generated pluralism in all the undertaken negotiations.”
Donors now acknowledge that development policies can only be successful if they are genuinely country-owned and if they are aligned with the priorities set by the recipient country. Thus, the AAA shifts attention to what is referred to as “country ownership” where the Paris Declaration focused on how donors should collaborate to achieve better results.
“The AAA is the vehicle for encouraging profound behavior change in our donor agencies and in partner countries - the change in the aid business model envisioned in the Paris Declaration,” said Angel Gurria, OECD secretary-general, in one of his closing statements in Accra.
Karl-Anders Larsson, senior adviser on aid effectiveness at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency in Stockholm, suggested that the inclusion of parliamentarians and civil society representatives from recipient countries may promote democratic ownership.
“Now, with AAA, we have achieved a broad consensus, which is definitely a step forward,” said Sandra Cifuentes, a Colombian government official. “More concrete commitments have been set.”
Le Thanh Forsberg, an expert on aid effectiveness, said the AAA has “demonstrated further the need to engage with civil society and the private sector in recipient countries apart from the main channel through central governments.”
“Of all the points, I find that it has added attention on recipient ownership,” she said. “It has better defined which are the actors ownership incorporates in a recipient country apart from the central government.”
Forsberg also applauded the donor community’s “further commitment” to better inform recipient governments about aid budgets and resource allocation so that recipient governments can better plan, align and integrate aid in their work and macroeconomic framework.
Huge challenges to improving aid effectiveness remain. Among them, Accra highlighted corruption and the use of partner country systems, which differs markedly among donor and recipient countries.
To be fair, there does not appear to be a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to aid allocation. Instead, stakeholders tend to agree that development strategies must be tailored to the needs of each respective country as they arise from the priorities of the most marginalized communities.
“Donors tend to wrongly regard government ownership as recipient ownership regardless of the level of pluralism or democratization. Hence, partner country systems are usually best in those countries that are highly centralized and lacking pluralism,” Forsberg said. “There has to be a sense of separation between categories of recipient regimes, not only between categories of recipients.”
“To generalize is impossible and any attempt to do so can hardly be serious,” Forsberg explained. “In the case of Vietnam, for example, where aid is a minor contribution today, harmonization and alignment is highly relevant, but the need for fighting corruption in aid and increase efficiency is the same. In this situation, the ultimate and best harmonization is to simply reduce the number of donors perhaps to only a couple of multilaterals.”
Castro said: “The message from partner countries is the need to ensure that all aid is effective and the importance of ensuring better alignment with country priorities and systems. Transparent reporting on all aid flows to the budget is an important first step in this direction. The challenge would be to find appropriate fora to engage aid actors outside the DAC [Development Assistance Committee] in a more systematic way, but clearly collaboration at country level under country leadership is critical.”
Many donors remain reluctant to use an aid-recipient country’s systems, making this perhaps the development community’s biggest challenge, according to Larsson.
“Donor-driven aid flows and lack of transparency and accountability has been the way development assistance has been allocated for many years in least developing countries,” Karki noted. “Country ownership is the only path to pave the way for better quality of aid.”
The AAA highlighted the dangers corruption poses to the effective and efficient delivery of aid. But time-bound commitments to fight corruption were again omitted, according to the Berlin-based civic group Transparency International.
Others agreed that it was time for donors to take the initiative.
“Donors cannot wait for government officials to mainly report on how far anti-corruption work is progressed,” Forsberg said. “They are not so active in fighting against themselves. There needs to be better demands on recipient governments’ time-bound commitments and check systems on how they work and progress in fighting corruption.”
Donors should demand free media and the integration of civil society in drafting aid strategies, Forsberg added.
“Many donor countries seemed reluctant and skeptical on generating strategies for fighting corruption,” a U.K. anti-corruption specialist told Devex on the condition of anonymity. “Even in the cases of corruption, we cannot foster parallel systems to tackle it. Country systems must still be used and fight for corruption indirectly.”
Although the AAA did not explicitly address rising food and fuel prices, climate change and a widening financial crisis, conference participants expressed the hope that their meeting would help the international development community tackle those and other emerging challenges.