Sunday, July 22, 2007

Don't Worry, Be Happy...

The Ramble apologises profusely, yet again, for undue tardiness. I’d blame ‘circumstances’ once more, but a man must take responsibility for his inaction. I’ve been busy at work, and The
American Geordie
(well known to regular readers) came to visit, but the main reason for my lack of Rambling was sheer, unadultered laziness. I shall attempt to reform. That said, I am writing this as I watch the cricket, in the hope that Tendulkar can entertain.

* * *

As mentioned above, the AG came to visit, with a sociologist doing research in Johannesburg, giving me the opportunity to go to Zomba again, which was great. As ever, the plateau was gorgeous, despite the apparently accelerating pace of logging; the walking was confusing, thanks to a map that bore no relation whatsoever to the real world; and the birds were numerous, which became a small consolation in the sixth hour of our three hour walk. Drinking in the Wheelhouse, a bar that is slowly but surely falling off the pier which houses it and into the lake it overlooks was equally rewarding and less complicated.

* * *

During a discussion over dinner with the AG, the aforementioned sociologist and a few others, conversation turned inevitably to my increasingly strident views on the drawbacks and limitations of development support. We were a disparate bunch: the AG is an economist, while the Ramble is a non-practicing economist. As mentioned above, we had a sociologist in our midst, and also an aid worker with Unicef and the owner of a tourist lodge in Zomba. Unsurprisingly, the conversation became an argument, without any satisfactory resolution (bugger. Tendulkar, lbw Panesar). It did get me thinking, however. I’ve posted at length many times previously on the various problems with development support, but what do donors do well?

Most of the debate over dinner focused on this central question. No one disputed that the ways in which donors have operated over the last few years has generally been sub-optimal. But there were convincing arguments that donors have traditionally intervened to positive effect in specific areas, and beyond this, are increasingly administering their aid in more productive ways. There’s definitely something to both arguments.

Firstly, development support in health and education has generally been well administered, at least in Malawi. Health is one of the few areas in which donors have been willing to accept that to make any sustained difference to the country, they will need to support recurrent funding, specifically salaries. Beyond this, aid to the health sector has been firmly in support of the Government’s own strategy for improving health care, giving us the greatest say in the direction of policy. From an economic point of view, as well, expenditure in the health sector makes very good sense – a healthy and productive workforce makes will improve whatever form of economic organisation it exists within. Similarly, from the humanitarian point of view: one of the huge black spots on Malawi’s public health record is our high maternal mortality rate – expenditure in this area can only be a good thing. In education, similar arguments can be made, though at Malawi’s level of development, education is not particularly important from an economic point of view – why do you need to spell if your job is package tea leaves?

The second plus point on development support raised was the improvements seen recently in the modes of aid delivery used. I’ve mentioned this before: budget support, allowing Government direct and unfettered control of the resources provided, and pooled funding in support of sector strategies, providing Government with funds to finance a strategy without donors stipulating how it should be spent, are both increasing - a very welcome development from the Government’s point of view. At the same time donors are under more and more pressure, much of it exerted by Government, to move towards best practices in aid delivery, to become more and more unobtrusive. I’ve seen the benefits of this approach – more responsibility for Government in the administration of resources ensures that Government can more directly control their use, while also building capacity to spend effectively. This is definitely a positive trend.

Predictably, though, I don’t think it’s that simple. Firstly, while support to education and health is generally a good thing, and well administered, it’s not without its problems. Donors know that these are the areas in which their aid has been most effective. As a result, they have heavily skewed their spending patterns to concentrate where they can easily demonstrate results – health is far and away the best funded sector in Malawi. What’s more it’s not just the actual funding that is skewed to these areas, but the available funding as well. This serves to skew Government’s priorities as well, as we tend to chase these available funds. Important areas, as I argued last week, are not being pursued with sufficient vigour.

Secondly, while it cannot be disputed that aid is delivered in more unobtrusive ways than before, there is still a long way to go. There are still very restrictive accounting and auditing requirements associated with untied aid, understandably. However, these procedures would not be a priority for Government in the absence of this aid – it distorts Government activities. Secondly, the assessments that determine how much budget support the Government will be allocated by donors remains heavily skewed towards social sectors and governance, again providing a distortion to Government activities. This is particularly true of the governance indicators – democracy, while a good in its own right, has nothing to do with the improvement of material wellbeing, the primary concern of most Malawians.

None of this should be read as unduly harsh or critical. I genuinely do believe that there are success stories in development support. But even in these successes we should point out the flaws in the way things work. No country has developed because of aid yet. That’s not to say it can’t work – but if we want it to work, we need to constantly think critically about the way it’s administered. Both Government and donors are learning how to use aid as we go along. Blindly celebrating every half-success will not help us.