Thursday, December 21, 2006

“Round up the usual suspects!”

This week’s Ramble starts with a rhetorical question. Do we really have Paris?

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Let me explain. I’m not entirely mad, although Casablanca is one of my favourite films. In 2005, a large meeting of donors and governments took place in Paris to thrash out the future of development assistance (that’s ‘aid’ to you and me), and make one of those Declarations that these gatherings are so fond of.

I won’t bore you with the details of what was agreed, but in a nutshell, governments agreed to get their houses in order, in particular with regard to financial management, corruption and the like, while donors agreed in turn to use the reformed Government systems more and more, particularly through the use of direct budget support and basket funding. A previous post has gone into more detail on this, but budget support and basket funding are the two forms of support that give Government the most freedom to use the funds provided in a manner consistent with Government aims. Additionally, donors also promised to start working together much more effectively to make sure they get as much common ground as possible before coming to Government, so that we don’t have the burden of discussing the same thing with each donor in turn or dealing with ten different systems for dealing with the same issue.

These are all good things that we agreed, even if the fundamental problem of development (how to create or foster a dynamic economy, since you asked) was left unaddressed. However, after the big wigs got back from Paris, fresh from signing the declaration, the plebs in-country were left trying to implement it. This has proven far more difficult than signing it.

The basic problem is that as with most exercises like this, everything that matters in the Declaration is vague. Sure, we’ve unambiguously agreed to set up robust budgeting, monitoring and procurement systems, and donors clearly state they will use these robust systems more and more, rather than burdening us with the task of dealing with each of their own individual systems, as I say above. There are even some global targets and indicators for 'development partners' as a group.

This is all great, but what lacks definition are the crucial questions that need to be asked on the individual level: When will you change and how will you change? What are the preconditions? Government and donors might have completely different ideas of what a strong monitoring and evaluation system is, and even if they were in agreement, a donor could act in bad faith and simply claim that what Government has put in place just isn’t good enough, and until it improves they won’t play ball. This isn’t really unusual. More than one donor organisation has centrally determined policy that explicitly declines to support government, due to political and economic orthodoxy at home. It’s difficult for us to do anything about this. Money flows from donors to Government and not vice versa, so we have no real way of holding donors to account for their actions.

Well, no foolproof ways. We do have one weapon, one that we’ve been using since our adolescence: peer pressure. We can get those donors who really do intend on strengthening Government to do so, and then scream to high heaven about how great they are. We publish reports and tables that place them at the top of the donors league table, lauding how lovely they are to work with, and then boo and hiss at those donors whom we don’t like.

Sound’s a bit weak doesn’t it? It is. This method works with those who care about what other donors think and who generally support the idea of a strong Government. As for the others, well, how do you shame someone who has no shame? It’s early days for this method, even in more advanced countries than Malawi, so time will tell. I suspect that for some donors, it won’t have any significant impact. For them to change, we need to change the content of their economics of development. Indeed, this has to happen everywhere, but in some places more than others.

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No Ramble next week – I’m off for a short Christmas break to Vic Falls, the Zambia side. Aiming to do some serious birding our there, thereby boring the pants off all my friends. It should be an interesting drive. Have a great Christmas, and if anyone watches the dead rubber fourth test of the Ashes, I’d appreciate an account of Shane Warne’s 700th wicket. I hope he does it like McGrath, who predicted his 300th would be Brian Lara. He was right – the middle wicket of an incredible hat trick.