Impressions of North America's aid and development scene: the good, the bad and the ugly

groundhog-day640_s640x427Washington and Ottawa, talking at universities, NGOs, multilaterals and aid agencies and experiencing a wonk version of groundhog day + powerpoint, brought on by giving the same presentation 16 times (I’m getting pretty good at it now). Overall impressions?  Lots of really smart and committed people caught between what Oxfam America’s Greg Adams calls the ‘high and low politics’ of aid. High politics is about policy – thoughtful discussions of how to make aid better; low politics is fending off the ‘aid doesn’t work/charity begins at home’ counter attack from right wingers and fiscal conservatives. In Canada, it felt like low politics is in the ascendant – the aid community seems besieged as the government takes the axe to a number of institutions, including ‘merging’ CIDA with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (feels more like an acquisition than a merger). The US felt more finely balanced – lots of good reform proposals coming from the Administration, and a really interesting discussion with USAID on how to move from funding relationships to partnerships like its triangular relationship with Brazil, where USAID and Brazil jointly support aid programmes in Lusophone Africa. They’re wondering how to expand that approach as more middle income countries set up their own aid agencies. For all my admiration for their blogging, I found my day or so at the World Bank pretty depressing in terms of politics and policy. The Bank seems stuck in a ‘technology + private sector = solution to everything’ mindset. I’m not against either, but you have to take politics, power, institutions etc at least as seriously. [caption id="attachment_14580" align="alignleft" width="235" caption="A Band for the Bank?"]A Band for the Bank?[/caption] I’ve already covered my exchange with Marcelo Giugnale. At my staff talk, Bank uberblogger Shanta Devarajan stated ‘poverty is a series of government failures’ and came out with examples where ‘governments intervene, but make people worse off.’ Unfortunately his conclusion seemed not to be that the Bank should help strengthen states, but that it should bypass governments/find private sector solutions to everything. An approach that is unlikely to reduce inequality and has little historical foundation, I fear. As for the evidence debate, Shanta reckoned ‘results always have to be relative to a counterfactual – that’s what they’re about’. So how do you assess things with no counterfactual, like the fall of apartheid, or the invasion of Afghanistan? Or the impact of international conventions on the rights of women? [update: Shanta says I got him all wrong – see his comment below] Meanwhile a discussion with the team producing the forthcoming World Development Report on Managing Risk suggested that the Bank still cannot get past its traditional technocratic approach of ‘if a state wants to improve, here are some suggestions’. On fragile states, what if a state isn’t interested in solutions? Reply – private sector + foreign investment. Oh dear. No theory of change for how fragile states turn around, finding nuclei of good governance in otherwise fragile states, building coalitions of civil society, faith-based institutions, media, academia, traditional authorities, shifting norms in the next generation. Nope, just a fairly barren state v private sector dichotomy. Still, these were rushed conversations, and I’d be delighted to be proved wrong. Other impressions? Great intellectual capacity at the UN, frustrated by the lack of clarity and political constraints of the system. A professor who still remembers her first class with Robert Chambers. Robert had pinned up a map of the world, with the North at the bottom. Then he just sat in a corner as his new students filed in and commented that he’d put the map up upside down. You can imagine the rest. Genius. And a great suggestion from someone (sorry can’t remember who) – a ‘voices of the activists’ study on lightbulb moments: what were the life-changingUpsidedown Map Of The World--Optimized experiences that set you on your present course – a meeting with an individual? A personal experience of violence or injustice? A seminar (hey, it happens)? Something you read? That is research I would love to read. Dogs that didn’t bark? Surprisingly little discussion on the rise of China, depressingly little on climate change. Otherwise, my over-riding impression of the trip is the network of smart, committed people who read this blog, comment, think and argue with passion. Thankyou – you have definitely renewed my commitment to keeping this forum going, even though it can be daunting when (as this morning) I wake up jetlagged, with nothing ready to post. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow. Update: here’s the video of one version (at Oxfam America) of my ‘what’s hot and what’s not: new thinking in development’ presentation.]]>

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13 Responses to “Impressions of North America's aid and development scene: the good, the bad and the ugly”
  1. Rosemary Cairns

    Interesting thoughts, Duncan. One thing I have been wondering about is this ‘government/private sector’ dichotomy.
    Increasingly it does seem that governments, at the top of systems, have difficulty improving life for their citizens – sometimes even managing effectively at all.
    Yet there are governments at the more local and regional level that are effectively doing so. I read this morning about an initiative by San Diego’s mayor to open an office in Tijuana which has created a whole new approach to border relationships.
    And recently, in working on an issue of AMED’s e Organisations and People on ‘open source thinking’, I was reflecting on how this new approach is reshaping institutions.
    Anne Marie Slaughter had a fascinating article recently on the idea of government as platform, drawing on the analogy of ‘i-phone’ – connecting people with resources so they can act for themselves.
    So I am wondering if it is not really a dichotomy of government vs private sector, but rather a reshaping of how ‘governance’ is being done and we are just at the start of this. I suspect it will completely reshape ‘government’ as we have known it.
    It seems to me that it would be a fascinating discussion – of what ‘governance’ is going to look like in coming years if ‘government’ is not the only one privileged to ‘govern’.

  2. Robert K. Walker

    Dear Duncan,
    I wonder whether in the triangular relationship with Brazil a third way will be disseminated. For some time now the idea that “public” includes more than “state” has been around in Brazil (see the OSCIP – Organizações Sociais de Interesse Público). The Tutorial Councils and the Councils on the Rights of Children and Youth emerged in the nineties. From a slightly different angle, we have instutions of co-management, such as health councils and participatory budgeting, and watershed basin councils. Now with territorialization, co-management takes on a broader scope. The state of Bahia, for example, is divided up into co-managed territories.
    I see Africans looking to Brazil for examples of inequality reduction. Perhaps this other thread may be of interest as well. Why does it have to be public OR private (or even PPP’s, for that matter)?

  3. Jonathan Said

    I strongly support your views here:
    “Unfortunately his conclusion seemed not to be that the Bank should help strengthen states, but that it should bypass governments/find private sector solutions to everything. An approach that is unlikely to reduce inequality and has little historical foundation, I fear”.
    The private sector and technology may help, but ultimately the answer is the development of effective institutions that support pro-poor growth. It is worrying to hear that the World Bank is bypassing government and institutions. Poverty is a mix of market failures and government failures. Market failures need to be addressed by appropriate government intervention. Addressing government failures needs to be through a mix of public sector development, accountability, developing growth coalitions (where technology and the private sector may help) and developing a conducive legal and regulatory framework.
    I work in Malawi, and you can really feel the impact of decades of neglect of institutions and effective government. Bypassing government has meant that Malawi’s developmental challenges remain unaddressed.

  4. Duncan: I did say that poverty is the result of government failures, but the solution is definitely not to bypass government and leave it to the private sector. On the contrary, since government failure is the inability of citizens to hold political leaders accountable, I was advocating solutions that strengthened this accountability. I suggested that traditional modes of aid delivery may not perform this function, but new methods, such as cash transfers, show promise.
    Also,I’m not sure I understand your objection to my calling for a well-specified counterfactual when measuring results. The counterfactual to the fall of Apartheid is the continuation of Apartheid. It is possible to compare the two. In fact, such a comparison is (perhaps implicitly) being made when people are observing that some social indicators in South Africa have not changed much since the time of Apartheid. Such comparisons guide us on where to focus policy attention going forward.
    Thanks for continuing the discussion.

  5. Valerie

    Great post, I enjoy following your blog (from inside the World Bank). Keep in mind that the WB is a many-headed hydra, many of us continue to fight the good fight, think carefully, question our thinking, and keep learning. It feels odd to be referred to as “the World Bank”.

  6. Many thanks, Duncan, for a highly entertaining and intelligent blog. The many-headed hydra comment is appreciated, but your thoughts about the World Bank also reminded me of another map I saw; you probably, too. It showed how “evidence-based policy” in bilateral and multilateral agencies changes up to 180 degrees, depending on which country in “their” world has the political colours blue or red at the time… The evidence, however, doesn’t change much. It may improve over time, hopefully.

  7. We were glad to meet with you and attend the presentation of your interesting book last Wednesday. We were, however, taken aback by your recent blog entry. Unfortunately, your brief account of our conversation contains three inaccuracies. It is incorrect to say that the forthcoming World Development Report 2014 on Managing Risk for Development does not have a strategy for fragile states; it does and is, in fact, similar to yours. The second inaccuracy is to say that the Report does not pay attention to nonstate actors such as NGOs, humanitarian agencies, enterprises, social movements, national and international media, and the scientific community, all of which have historically been important for instances of improved risk management and are particularly relevant for fragile countries. Finally, the third inaccurate perception is that the Report’s recommendations will only be geared to governments and predicated on their willingness to “do the right thing”. In fact, the Report will recommend multiple ways to improve action and accountability for risk management that involve both state and a range of nonstate actors. Next time, let’s talk for a longer time so as to avoid any misperception or confusion. We are sure there will be plenty of opportunities to discuss these important issues once the Report is launched in October 2013.
    Regards, Norman Loayza and Rasmus Heltberg, WDR 2014 team, the World Bank

  8. Duncan

    Apologies for any misrepresentation Rasmus – I’ve gone back and I think my blog is a faithful representation of my notes of our conversation, but as you say, it was a brief exchange, on an issue that merits deep conversation! Look forward to a more comprehensive engagement down the line.

  9. Hi Duncan,
    Many thanks for your thought-provoking blog posts; sure glad I became aware of your blog through a listserv that I am on.
    Regarding your comment on your impressions while in Canada, I would have to echo that sentiment. Having worked (briefly) at CIDA (before the merger), I can say that the focus has slowly been shifting and people have seen the writing on the wall before news of this ‘acquisition’ (my former colleagues all found out through the press and not beforehand to boot).
    All in all, it doesn’t bode well for a robust development policy and strategy and, despite the general pessimism from most of the water cooler conversations I have had with others on the landscape of intl development in Canada, I’m hoping some semblance of improvement and change result from all of this. One can hope, at least.
    In the meantime, I look forward to future conversations.