How can small countries make a difference with their aid programmes?


Had a fun couple of days in Malta last week – amazing place, dripping with history – massive battlements, the Knights of Malta (right), amazing blinged-up churches, and some

The knights didn't last long
The knights didn’t last long

spectacular Caravaggios (my favourite one below). I was there to deliver a Kapuscinski Lecture  on ‘Citizen Empowerment and Mobilization’ – I’ll link to it when it goes online. But I also had a fascinating conversation on the role of small aid donors.

Historically, Malta has always been on the receiving end of aid. When it joined the EU in 2004, one of the requirements was for it to become a donor and develop an aid policy. So it went almost overnight from aid recipient to aid donor. But it is a small country (400,000 people), and its aid budget is currently only €14m ($17m, 0.2% of its Gross National Income). How does it spend it?

The answer is, not very well, at least according to the latest AidWatch report. AidWatch discounts €8m of the €14m as ‘inflated’ because it is spent on refugee detention centres – Malta is slap bang on the migration route between North Africa and Europe.

But when I read the Maltese government’s aid policy (which doesn’t appear to be on the web), I started to wonder whether AidWatch is right. Malta’s current policy reads like an exercise in wannabe aid donorship. It sets out 10 ‘areas of focus’, from good governance to health to gender equality to climate change. What is the point of an aid minnow trying to be a mini-me DFID (whose aid budget is over 1000 times larger)? What might be a better starting point for a relevant aid policy?

That got me thinking of a couple of recent conversations on the ‘Strengths Based Approach’ to development. What is special about Malta that could form the basis of a useful aid policy? Two aspects in particular stand out: one is precisely its role as a migration hotspot; the other is religion – Malta is a deeply Catholic country, with a long missionary tradition. Maltese citizens actually give far more in their private charitable giving than the government does through its official aid budget.

What would an aid policy build around those strengths look like? Malta could develop a migration policy that combines migrant rights with more humane deterrence  (there must be a better way to deter migrants than simply letting them drown). It could lobby the EU and its member states on the need to boost public education and awareness on migration. It link up with other migration hotspots. It could research the vulnerabilities and potential protection of migrants on their long and vulnerable passage from home villages in North Africa and the Middle East to the shores and detention camps of Europe.

On faith and development, it could focus its aid work on improving the quality of faith-based aid, promoting inter-faith dialogue and challenging Europe’s secular aid ethos.

St Jerome writing: Caravaggio from his Maltese period
St Jerome writing: Caravaggio from his Maltese period

But that is unlikely to happen. Instead, its aid programme is an exercise in magical thinking – in Matt Andrews’ phrase, ‘isomorphic mimicry’ of a large, secular aid donor.

This is partly because of the lack of a generalised system of support for new members from the EU. Androulla Kaminara, a thoughtful adviser to EuropeAid explained how it works. Prior to accession, the EU can exert pressure on candidate countries to introduce conventional aid policies, but the moment a country joins, it has to be treated as the equal of all other members. But it is bonkers to think Malta suddenly acquires an effective state aid apparatus just by becoming a member state – it has just six aid officials, and local NGOs complain bitterly about the lack of transparency and consultation. There is no transitional category of new EU states in the European Commission, which instead can only respond to requests from member states. If they are too weak to even ask for help, or do not see aid as worth investing in, then nothing happens. Which is pretty much the story in Malta.

So it’s hardly surprising that the research finds a fairly dismal performance by new member states in general. Reluctant Donors? The Europeanization of International Development Policies in the New Member States, by Simon Lightfoot and Balázs Szent-Iványi, looked at aid policies in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. They found that countries have done the bare minimum on aid to comply with accession requirements, have failed to build a domestic constituency for the transition from aid recipient to donor, and have had very little support or pressure from Brussels.

NGO thinking, as epitomised in the AidWatch report, doesn’t help much either. The Maltese NGOs I talked to saw only problems (not potential strengths) in working on either migration or faith – they want a standard secular aid programme, with lots of participation and consultation.

Thinking about an alternative, strength-based, approach fits with some of the institutional reform thinking of the ‘Doing Development Differently’ crowd – for example

Migrant detention centre, Malta
Migrant detention centre, Malta

developing hybrid aid institutions out of what is already there, rather than implanting an illusory aid policy based on the World Bank or the MDGs. But it made me question Matt Andrews’ ‘problem-driven iterative adaptation’ (PDIA) approach to institutional reform. PDIA could identify lots of problems with Malta’s aid programme, but would not naturally lead you to build on its existing  strengths. Is that a wider flaw of PDIA? Maybe we need a combo ‘Strength Based Iterative Adaptation’ variant? Interested in your thoughts on that.

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10 Responses to “How can small countries make a difference with their aid programmes?”
  1. Simon Lightfoot

    Interesting piece Duncan. There is a great article on Maltese aid ‘Blessed Is He Who Considers the Human Rights Paradigm: Maltese Aid
    between Charity and Human Rights and between Catholicism and Secularism
    Isabelle Calleja-Ragonesi, Anna Khakee, and Maria Pisani
    Mediterranean Quarterly 25:3 DOI 10.1215/10474552-2772280

  2. Anna Melland

    On the question of transit migration to the EU many migrants arriving in Malta (and other Southern European countries) have legitimate reasons to seek and claim asylum as refugees in line with the Refugee Convention which all member countries are signatory to. The right to seek asylum, a cornerstone of European refugee policy, is being increasingly undermined as pressure on Europe’s borders grows & this is compounded by a lack of an effective European ‘burden-sharing’ mechanism with Malta, Greece, Italy etc who are at the frontline of refugee/migrant flows. Aid efforts need to be directed here to ensure that people who in need of protection are able to seek and gain refugee status and ensure that this is prioritised above pandering to domestic political concerns and anti-immigration hyperbole…

  3. Catherine Dom

    Hi Duncan

    I think (and actually suggested to one of the guys who was among those talking at the DDD/Harvard workshop last month) that you need both (i.e. identify problems and build on strenghts). Of course it doesn’t make it for a nice acronym so I wouldn’t try.

  4. Rashmir Balasubramaniam

    Love this post. There’s a lot that could be achieved with $17 million and a team of 6!

    Imagine the possibilities of learning from Western models of aid and development – with the mixed history of results, assumptions and motivations, and then envisioning and evolving a catalytic aid model from the unique essence of a county, it’s story of place, its strengths and also its aspirations.

    It would take visionary and creative leadership, but could be both fun and impactful.

  5. John Kitui

    Reading through your article, I can’t help but imagine what would happen if Malta would ignore the current model of development as practised by big secular agencies (read DFID) and aim to be disruptive based on their unique comparative advantage (smallness, faith basis, recent recipients of aid etc) and match that with opportunities to really make a difference. Unlike Catherine, I will attempt an acronym: comparative advantage – opportunity based iterative adaptation (CAOBIA).

  6. Sam Gardner

    Nice take, Duncan,

    The “conventional wisdom” on Aid is indeed created by the World Bank, DFID and their ilk. Most donors are totally different, and indeed have different strength.

    However the international aid architecture, with Paris, Busan and other mistic writings, is totally written for the type of large donor, backed by a large diplomacy.

    This one size fits all is not at all a good fit for most countries. Perhaps even for none. The aid architecture indeed does not really look at the identity of the giver.

    I think indeed that you are on to something with just going for strengths. It is like, if the Netherlands would spend half of their aid only on Water. Would they be able to spend all their aid wisely? Probably more so than scattered over everything that is politically correct.

    • Duncan Green

      Hmm, could be a fun experiment to take all the donors and base their aid programmes on their national strengths (if you could agree what they were), then see what we end up with. Sort of David Ricardo comes to the aid biz

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