Balancing Scope with Accountability: A Challenge for Development Effectiveness

Back in the early years of this century, a phrase started circulating which has since become one of those constant pieces of development jargon. Rather than just calling for more aid, campaigners and recipient governments started insisting that it be better aid as well.


‘More and better aid’ became one of the central planks of the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005. It was a recognition, in an era of criticism and reflection on the impact of aid spending, that not all aid works, and that some aid can do harm if spent unwisely.


In the same year, government representatives met in Paris. While campaigners banged drums, researchers, practitioners and bureaucrats got down to the complementary work of spelling out what ‘better aid’ would look like. What emerged was the ground-breaking Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. Ground-breaking not only for its substance but, remarkably in hindsight, for the fact that donor governments actually submitted themselves to exacting standards on which they would be publicly held to account. This seldom happens. The drumming helped.


The next six years, were, perhaps, the heyday of the ‘aid effectiveness’ movement. There were, of course, many problems with Paris’ attempts to corral the complex reality of aid into a set of targets and indicators – everyone had their own bone to pick with them, from an over-focus on process to a lack of focus on politics and a failure to properly respond to changing contexts both nationally and internationally.


Nevertheless, the principles encapsulated in Paris became common currency and, crucially, the mechanisms set up to monitor them actually did their job reasonably well for a time, with donor governments altering policy based on feedback, facilitated by an impressive bureaucracy at the OECD. The setting up of multi-stakeholder mutual accountability committees in many recipient countries, and of aid effectiveness units within donor agencies, were among a number of important signs of progress.


That was then. Fast forward to 2018 (via major meetings in Accra, Busan, Mexico City and Nairobi, and hundreds of smaller meetings besides) and two main things have happened. First, the focus on better aid has become hardwired into the international development community. Perhaps the most telling demonstration of this is the number of impact evaluations now being carried out, many of a detailed, often randomised, nature. Before Paris these were few and far between – today they are par for the course.


And second, the language of aid effectiveness has evolved into a focus on ‘effective development co-operation’ or ‘development effectiveness’. This reflects the broadening out from an obsession with aid to an understanding that with all forms of finance, resources need to be harnessed to further global progress, whether public, private or philanthropic, both domestic and international.


I wrote a book (still available!) about the need to assess with more nuance the complex impacts of aid, and much of my writing since has been on the importance of transforming the development sector to better reflect a new twenty-first century global reality – so in many ways I am pleased with these two evolutions.


But there are some aspects of the ‘old-fashioned’ aid effectiveness work that appear to have been lost. As I walked out of the Busan conference centre in 2011, I asked an old-hand, someone who had helped draft the Paris Declaration, for his assessment of the meeting. His response was blunt and disappointed: ‘Paris is dead’. I thought at the time he was being a bit melodramatic, but I soon began to see his point. By expanding the scope of the effectiveness agenda, to cover more sectors, more themes, more geographies, it soon became impossible to maintain that process of holding the powerful (donors et al) to account for their spending decisions.


Sure, the Paris indicators were limited and flawed, but they were slowly pushing aid spending in the right direction. Advocate and recipients were able to use them to balance out the political and media pressures that so often determine aid spending. In modern bureaucracies, clear targets, backed up by data and evidence, have power.


And it is not only the process of Paris that has been diluted over time. The main substantial centre of the Paris analysis, in my view, was ownership – that annoying word that isn’t quite right but we know what it approximates to. It turns out that after all the research, we know less about what makes aid effective than we would like to – and debates continue. But one thing we do know, because the research and practice are as one on this issue, is that when recipients are involved in aid (from planning to implementation to evaluation), development interventions are far more likely to work.

But while ‘impact’, ‘effectiveness’ and ‘results’ are now at the heart of every keynote speech on aid and development, ‘ownership’ and ‘participation’ are no longer the buzzwords they once were when everyone was still reading Robert Chambers.


So, when we look at the development effectiveness landscape in 2018, we see some steps forward, some steps back. And these are the issues on which I will be grilling my panel at the Global Partnership on Effective Development Co-operation’s meeting in Paris in this coming week. Is the effectiveness agenda making real progress? Is the development community empowering the less powerful to hold the more powerful to account? How can we balance the need for evolution, to reflect a changing context with a steadfastness to evidence-based principles?

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