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Building Democratic and Accountable States

Time (GMT +00) 12:45 14:00


Rt. Hon. Donald C. McKinnon, Secretary-General, Commonwealth Secretariat


Diana Cammack, Research Fellow, Poverty and Public Policy Group, ODI

Tom Clarke, MP

Donald McKinnon covered 5 main points in his speech:

  • The role of overseas development assistance (ODA)

  • The elements which create durability in a state

  • The relationship between democracy and development

  • The obstacles to tackling poverty

  • Aid architecture

He started by saying ODA is a means to an end: how it is spent is more important than what is spent. He expressed concerns that pledges from 2005 will not be honoured and that donors and recipients lack the capacity to spend effectively. ODA should be targeted at institutions and on the fundamental building blocks of the parliament, judiciary and executive.

Factors at play in the durability of a state include the extent to which it reflects the people's will and to which it is supported and recognised by other states. He stressed that the process of building a democratic state is lengthy and the West should support this process.

McKinnon stressed that democracy without development can lead to people questioning democracy. He said it is therefore vital that fledgling democracies make better progress on the MDGs. He stated that, overall, the commonwealth countries have made a lot of progress on democracy but not enough on development, especially in Sub Saharan Africa and the small island states.

He listed obstacles to tackling poverty including weak administrative capacity, corruption, macroeconomic instability, poor planning, technology gaps, poor education and health, underdeveloped infrastructure and confusion over land ownership.

On aid architecture, he questioned the balance of 65% bilateral and 35% multilateral was right and stressed the importance of working together. On trade, he insisted that there must be agreement in the Doha round and that failure to reach agreement would put the future of the WTO in doubt.

He concluded by calling for a push in democracy and in development and stressing the role of the Commonwealth in building developmental, democratic and accountable states.

Diana Cammack has lived for much of the past 25 years in different countries in Africa. She started by stating that she did not see democracy or progress in Africa. She outlined 3 key points:

  1. The role of outsiders is limited in Africa;

  2. National economic development is dependant on African politics;

  3. Democratic policy transition has stalled.

She stated that elections do not necessarily equal democracy. She said that the real decisions are made by informal networks, headed by presidents whose aim it is to stay in power. Outsiders (such as donors) have little access to these informal networks.

She posed the question of why the situation is like this. To answer, she said that informal systems still exist because they still serve a purpose: when the state doesn't work, people turn to informal networks.

On aid, she said that aid will not work until the political will for reform exists. The role of outsiders in promoting change is limited and the West must accept this. For aid to produce results, the following must be considered:

  • How decisions are made in informal and formal networks;

  • Whether the aid supports change;

  • Whether it makes civil society stronger and able to demand rights;

  • Accountability to citizens not donors;

  • Whether it promotes an independent media;

  • If it helps public understanding of how and where power resides and why this leads to weak democracy and development;

  • If it pushes institutions such as the African Union to be critical.

Points raised in the discussion included:

  • The extent to which the West is aware of, and fails to challenge, the way politics works in Africa. Cammack replied that the West needs to better understand politics and how to make aid effective.

  • The role of the Commonwealth in getting countries to change. McKinnon answered that the Commonwealth is the only organisation which suspends and expels members who do not abide by the rules.

  • The sale of arms between Commonwealth countries. Cammack replied that conflict should be addressed at all levels.

  • The need to involve the state and not cut it out so that it has the ability to respond to a more politicised civil society's demands.

  • The vulnerability of small states. McKinnon replied that they are inherently vulnerable. Membership of the Commonwealth allows them to share strategies and success stories.


This meeting in the 'What's Next in International Development' series discusses building democratic and accountable states.

Attlee Suite