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High drama at the High Level Forum

Written by Simon Maxwell


I've just returned from the ministerial day at the third High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, where I moderated the two main plenary discussions (for other resources prepared by colleagues in advance of the Forum, see ODI on... the Third High Level Forum). The High Level Forum, 2-4 September, was held in Accra, Ghana and generated a great deal of drama. For those who don’t live and breathe aid effectiveness, this is a triennial ministerial event of the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD/DAC). The last Forum, in 2005, generated the Paris Declaration on aid effectiveness, enshrining principles and targets for things like harmonisation, alignment and mutual accountability between donors and recipients. The process is designed to remedy all those shocking facts we cite – 700 donor missions to Vietnam last year, 25 health donors in many African countries.  

The drama concerned the outcome document, known as the Accra Agenda for Action. This had been carefully prepared over many months, as a consensus statement to be approved by Ministers. When I turned up for my breakfast briefing at 7 am on Thursday morning, the news was that the process had broken down over dinner the previous evening and that the whole negotiation was in jeopardy. Two EU ministers had demanded stronger wording and more concrete action programmes. Some other countries had resisted -- the rumours said the USA and Japan. Throughout the day, while we debated general issues in the cavernous aircraft hangar of a plenary space, negotiating teams and sub-groups toiled away. Rumours about progress, or the lack of it, seeped out. Praise and blame was distributed. Half my panel of ministers in the afternoon session disappeared to help. I was told to keep the audience entertained, because the final session would have to be postponed. Finally, the French Minister, Alain Joyandet, in part representing the EU Presidency, rejoined the panel. ‘There is white smoke’, he cried, ‘we have a Declaration’.  Hooray! Eventually, we convened to receive photocopied hand-outs. Jubilation all round. Everyone seemed pleased, even hardened NGO operators.

I’m not specialist enough to judge, but the document certainly covers the main areas identified by the original Paris Declaration: ownership, alignment, harmonisation, managing for results, and mutual accountability. I’ve compared the earlier and new drafts and there is, indeed, significant strengthening of the wording. Words like ‘aspire’ or ‘urge’ have been replaced by phrases like ‘starting now, we will’. There are specific targets for 2010, and strong commitments on issues like the need to avoid proliferating aid funds and programmes. All this will be underpinned by strict monitoring and peer review.

By the way, the principles are very applicable to humanitarian aid. There is also an OECD/DAC code of conduct on fragile states that those working on this topic may wish to see.

A parallel initiative worth tracking is the new UK-funded International Aid Transparency Initiative. I’d like someone to look at this closely, not least because we’ve always argued that it doesn’t make much sense to try and track aid monies very directly because of macro-economic issues to do with absorption and spending, and also fungibility (whether goods or commodities are exchangeable or substitutable).

Also worth noting is the ODI-Debt Relief International initiative on donor policy tracking. 

I don’t doubt that all this is essential, and that the quantitative indicators make it easy to trace progress (or, actually, and mostly, lack of it). I’m sorry that it doesn’t allow much space for the question of whether we need all these funds and programmes in the first place. As my own slogan puts it, ‘don’t just harmonise, multilateralise’.

That was the kind of issue we hoped to address in the two plenaries. The first, in the morning, had a panel of Bob Zoellick (World Bank), Kemal Dervis (United Nations Development Programme), Donald Kaberuka (African Development Bank), Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia, and Emilia Pires, Minister of Finance from Timor-Leste, plus three Ministers speaking from the floor to report on round-tables, and a thousand other people participating or observing.

There were some interesting points:

  • Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf calling for a big effort to reduce the time-lag between commitment and disbursement. This was picked up by the Malawian Finance Minister in the afternoon, asking why it had taken four years to deliver the money promised for a teacher-training school.
  • Kemal Dervis really prioritising global economic governance and calling for a much more active ‘beyond aid' agenda e.g. regulation of financial markets. He’s also always very good on rising global inequality.
  • Bob Zoellick again highlighting the food issue, and calling for humanitarian food supplies to the World Food Programme to be completely free of tax in both importing and exporting countries. He was very strong on using country systems, pointing out that two-thirds of aid to Afghanistan is off-budget. He celebrated the proposal from the EU Commission to move Euros 1 billion of unspent money from the Common Agricultural Policy on food prices to help with the food crisis, and urged that it be accepted: in the afternoon, Louis Michel, European Commissioner responsible for Development and Humanitarian Aid, and  Alain Joyandet, both said they thought it would happen.
  • *Emilia Pires bringing the house down with her account of being a Finance Minister and trying to deal with multiple and overlapping donors, all with different rules and procedures.
  • The interest across the board in doing more for fragile states. Bob Zoellick is especially interested in this, and is speaking in a few weeks at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London – a venue deliberately chosen to strengthen the involvement of the security community. 

Not much traction in this session on aid architecture – everyone being a bit too diplomatic.

The afternoon session was less focused, because of the disruption caused by the negotiation crisis. Also, lots of ministers wanted to speak, which was difficult to control. I stood at the podium and kept getting notes saying things like ‘my minister must speak and has to leave at 4.30’. The main panel included Louis Michel, Mr Haruhiko Kuroda from the Asian Development Bank, and Ministers from Colombia, Egypt, France and Malawi. Goodall Gondwe from Malawi was especially good on unpredictability and delay: as I said, you wouldn’t want his job.

No time to visit all the NGO stalls or make contact with all the lobbying groups, of which there were dozens.