Monday, May 28, 2007

“I think it’s turning back around… and I don’t think I like it…”

The Ramble hangs its head in shame. I wish I could blame work, but that’s not the only reason. I’ve been lazy and distracted recently. Friends left Malawi and I reacted to my spare time with less Rambling, not more, as I read more books, watched more films, and spread the gospel of cricket more widely. (To sum: The Magus is disappointing, In This World is outstanding, and even during the World Cup Malawi doesn’t care about cricket).

Then, last week something extraordinary happened. AC Milan won the champions league. So overjoyed was I that I immediately thought of writing here – only to remember, this loose collection of thoughts should be about development and political economy, not football. So cap in hand, and with suitable contrition, I have returned.

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The last section was a little bit wilfully disingenuous. There’s another, good, reason why I haven’t Rambled much recently. I’ve come the point where my job has started to repeat activities that I did last year; as a result, I’ve felt that fertile new topics to Ramble on were thin on the ground. That said, I realised that one of the most interesting things I could Ramble about was now possible: progress.

Two major events have dominated the last couple of months: a joint review of donor and Government performance and the budget. Chronologically, the first was the repeat of the review workshop, emceed last year by a low-rent Jerry Springer. This joint review is meant to be means of promoting mutual accountability in development, with donors and Government assessing the portfolio of development activities and seeking improvements.

On the whole it was quite positive. We got better reports than last year, giving us some concrete information as to what resources went into each sector and what results all of this achieved. Despite this, though, it went some way to confirming two unpopular opinions I’ve come to form.

Firstly, true mutual accountability is impossible in development. Donors can hold Government accountable by letting it be known that assessments such as these inform their funding decisions for Malawi as a whole, and also for each sector individually. Government, however, cannot effectively turn the tables on donors – we can’t make any credible threat to them. Except in the case of truly spectacular under-performance, Government will not realistically ask them to leave the country. The only thing we can do is shame those who are performing badly by publicising their poor performance. This will only work when the donors in question care what the rest of the development community thinks of their performance and when they agree that their performance has been assessed in a fair manner. Without naming names, not all donors will meet these requirements.

At the same time, even donor attempts to hold Government to account are hampered by a civil service low on capacity. Some sectors failed to report effectively and are likely, in the long run, to see less funding because of this. It’s not that the civil servants involved don’t care: many of them do, deeply. But they simply aren’t enough qualified people to do this kind of work to a high standard, and still deliver the core functions of the Ministry. The facile answer to this is to ‘build capacity’. What this means is less clear-cut, however. More training results in the trained people leaving Government. Technical assistance is a stopgap measure. Funding increased salaries would make a difference, especially if it contributed to the hiring of better managers by Government, but donors won’t go near salaries – it’s too difficult to justify to their own electorates.

Despite these problems, mutual accountability is an important principle. If a development partner agrees to support Government’s development programme, that donor needs to know that the programme is effective. At the same time, donors have a responsibility to administer their aid in a manner that makes it as easy as possible for Government to use their aid to achieve desired results.

Which brings us to my second opinion that was strengthened through this review: poor countries do not develop because of aid. I’ve Rambled about this previously, so I won’t go into detail here. But the focus of most donors on the social sector at the cost of near-complete neglect of economic growth and private sector development was brought home starkly when our review split into two rooms, one to look at economic growth and the other to look at social development. About 80% of our development partners joined the social development room. It’s not just about funding – it’s about interest. And in my view, all donors – whether focused on governance, education, health, whatever – should be paying attention to how their activities can stimulate capitalism. It is only through capitalism that development can be sustained.

So progress since last year? We’ve done quite a lot in some sectors, like health, but in terms of really developing the country for the long term, I’m not so sure. And until economic growth is more of a priority across all sectors, I’m not sure how much more progress we will make.

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And the budget? That deserves a post of its own sometime in the future…