Q&A: What is decentralized development cooperation?

Aziza Akhmouch, head of unit at the OECD’s Sustainable Development Goals, water, local public services, and regional development policy division. Photo by: OECD

The volume of decentralized development cooperation grew by 12 percent in real terms between 2005 and 2015 — despite an economic downturn and rising populism — according to a study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The interim findings were presented at a Committee of the Regions conference focused on “decentralized development” in Brussels this week — where participants also tried to pin down a clear meaning for the term.

“It’s about time we have a common definition of this process,” said Rosario Bento Pais, a representative of the European Commission’s development arm, DEVCO, which commissioned the OECD report.

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Citing the lack of consensus to date, she put forward a definition from a 2015 DEVCO study: Decentralized development cooperation is “a partnership between two or more local authorities from different countries with the possible inclusion of other territorial actors, like civil society, private sector, schools, health care and universities.”

Devex sat down with Aziza Akhmouch — head of unit at the OECD’s Sustainable Development Goals, water, local public services, and regional development policy division — to discuss the report, which will be released in full early next year. The conversation here has been edited for length and clarity.

Do we have a shared definition of decentralized development cooperation — and do we need one?

You have as many definitions as you have countries using decentralized cooperation. If you take the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD, 18 of its 30 members are reporting on decentralized cooperation activities, and nine of these are EU countries. Some have explicit standardized definitions — Portugal, Italy and France, for example — while some have no definition per se but they have guidelines to frame decentralized cooperation activities; others have definitions or guidelines but more at a sectoral level.

“We want to come up with clusters of cities or regions that have a common vision of what decentralized development cooperation is.”

For the OECD, our proxy is the share of official development assistance that is extended by local and regional governments, rather than the type of decentralized cooperation activities that they’re doing.

I don’t think you really need a standard definition, and I think it would be difficult to have one. What we are trying to do with this work is to come up with a typology. We want to come up with clusters of cities or regions that have a common vision of what decentralized development cooperation is, that have common modalities for channeling it through NGOs and networks, and that have common criteria for defining the priorities.

Why was this report on decentralized development cooperation necessary now?

At the OECD it was necessary because for the last 15 years, we’ve had different communities of practice with different views on what decentralized cooperation means and what it brings.

In my area, territorial development, where the work with subnational governments is done, there was this implicit view that decentralized cooperation is a very good mechanism to develop local solutions and transfer know-how across countries. But there had never been any evidence-based work on that.

[Meanwhile], at the DAC, there was an implicit view that decentralized cooperation was a fragmentation of ODA flows that didn’t necessarily follow the principles on aid effectiveness and that there was limited accountability, or monitoring of the accountability, of those governments.

The OECD has never taken a stand to say what we know about the topic, what we think is working or not working, and what we advise for those who want to use it.

Development Assistance Committee members now spend about $2 billion annually on decentralized types of cooperation. You can’t pretend it’s not there. It’s peanuts in terms of development cooperation [overall], but it’s there, so you want to make sure that this is channeled properly and outcome-driven.

What were your main findings?

“We’ve moved on a bit from the traditional vertical cooperation, where the donor country just channels funding and there’s no accountability mechanism.”

Between 2005 and 2015, relative volumes of decentralized development cooperation have remained stable at 6 percent of total bilateral ODA when considering the same group of donors. That’s interesting because that’s despite the economic crisis, but also despite the rise of populism, which we know has played against decentralized cooperation regions. The extreme right is lobbying extensively against channeling money to build wells in Africa [for example]. You know, as a French taxpayer, it’s fair enough — “am I paying taxes for that?”

In many countries, bilateral ODA [overall] has increased faster than decentralized development cooperation projects. With the exception of some countries like Spain or Austria (where decentralized cooperation has increased by 360 percent), it remains a tiny part of the larger development cooperation portfolio.

What does this kind of assistance usually involve?

It’s mostly peer to peer. You have other types of activities such as technical assistance that exist, but we saw an increasing trend (from 2005 to 2010 to 2015) for peer-to-peer dialogue. And also more North-North or triangular types of cooperation. We’ve moved on a bit from the traditional vertical cooperation, where the donor country just channels funding and there’s no accountability mechanism. You are in a context where there is a lack of trust in government, where scrutiny on public expenditure is higher and higher, and it’s all this that makes it one of the areas where if you’re spending a euro you want to know what has come out of it.

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About the author

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.