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A more careful approach to scaling up is called for

Just last week Kofi Annan, in his new role as chairman of the Africa Progress Panel, called on G8 leaders to deliver on the promises for increased aid to Africa that were made at Gleneagles in 2005. While large amounts of additional aid have so far failed to materialise, there is little doubt that in the near future aid will play an important part in efforts to assist African countries in reaching the MDGs. Yet, how and when scaling up happens is likely to be as important as how much additional aid is actually given.

At the 'Africa after the Africa Commission: What priorities for the German G8?' policy forum (2 May, London), participants in the session on 'Aid Effectiveness and Absorptive Capacity' had a lively discussion on these issues, and agreed that things are not as easy as they may seem. Donors should keep in mind that concerns over the quality (and not just the quantity) of aid and over governance and accountability issues in recipient countries are likely to determine whether (more) aid is effective or not. Current donor agendas focused on narrow conceptions of ownership, harmonisation and alignment, and the resurgence of the geo-politics of aid-giving (linked to the “war on terror”) constitute major impediments.

In particular, participants focused on four key recommendations for the German G8 (6-8 June):

1. Donor countries should provide more credible, longer term commitments, given that many of the challenges faced by African countries require a long term perspective, including in the area of basic social services and macroeconomic management.

2. Deliver aid through modalities that strengthen domestic institutions and accountability. General Budget Support, where appropriate, should be the preferred modality, as it allows for priorities to be set by the recipient government, and for domestic accountability actors such as Parliaments and civil society to play a larger role.

3. Recognise the governance challenges African countries face and support domestic accountability actors. This is probably the most difficult area, as donors often don’t recognise the inherently political role that they play in recipient countries, and risk undermining the role of domestic politics.

4. Manage expectations in donor countries about what aid can realistically achieve. Public opinion should be better informed about the difficulties and tensions inherent in aid giving, in order to ensure long term public support for aid, even in the face of short term challenges.

In summary, this calls for a more careful approach to scaling up, should G8 countries deliver on their promises in the next few years. Nonetheless, improving the quality of aid flows and tackling the governance challenges faced by African countries in novel ways are still issues that donor governments need to face to improve aid effectiveness and limit absorptive capacity issues. While these issues may not be easily translatable into political sound bites and campaign slogans, they are very important in ensuring that aid plays a positive role in the promotion of African development.

Read specially commissioned opinions, listen to the podcast, see presentations, summaries and messages to the G8 from the plenaries and break-out sessions here.