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Mutual accountability isn't just about what happens 'over there'

Aid geeks and technocrats are having a busy time of it right now; dashing from one capital to the next, late night international phone calls and finalising reports that they hope will be read by someone. They are focusing on the third High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (HLF3) which takes place in Accra, Ghana in the first week of September. This summit will review the progress made towards the targets and commitments made by donors and recipient governments in the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness.

As we wait for the final draft of the Accra Agenda for Action (AAA) to be published it seems a good time to take stock of what will be happening in Accra and how we got to where we are. A recent Commonwealth workshop to bring together senior finance officials from across the Commonwealth to prepare for HLF3 highlighted for me the potential that the HLF3 offers for moving the aid effectiveness agenda forward. It also emphasised the distance that all actors, but donors in particular, have to travel before a mutually satisfying dialogue about the critical issues is to be developed (workshop summaries are available online: Commonwealth Workshop on United Nations Development Cooperation Forum (UNDCF), Senior Officials Workshop on Preparation for Accra High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness).

HLF3 is an important summit, because although aid is not the only – or even the most important – instrument for promoting development results, there is a broad consensus that it will remain a component of the financing required for reaching the MDGs for many countries. There is also broad agreement that aid could be significantly more effective, and that the Paris Declaration, while going nowhere near far enough to deal with all of the issues, at least deals with those where there is sufficient international consensus to hope for some action.

The agenda and content of HLF3 has been the subject of an extensive consultation process. Yet there have been criticisms of the process from both governments and civil society. Are these criticisms valid? In some ways no; the depth and breadth of the consultation process has been unprecedented, for the DAC. Many of the concerns expressed by both recipient governments and civil society have been taken on board, particularly through the roundtables. And yet, as the discussions at the Commonwealth workshop showed, on another level they are valid.

This was a thread running through the day and a half workshop despite the Development Assistance Committee’s (DAC) efforts at engaging a wide range of stakeholders, there is still a participation deficit. DAC donors have provided the substantive input, particularly in terms of commissioning the background research for the forum and through their influence on the tone and content of the final publications which form the backdrop to discussions in Accra. In this critical area recipient governments have played a limited role.

This thread was particularly marked during discussions about the AAA. The workshop took place as the second draft of the AAA was about to be published. There was broad agreement that this first draft was too technical and the commitments not ambitious enough, particularly for donors. The second draft, now published, deals well with the first issue, but the final document will have to be much more ambitious if it is to meet some of the concerns of those at the workshop. The final draft is due out on the 20th July and will be endorsed at HLF3 by silent consent – if countries do not raise objections they will be considered to have endorsed the AAA.

Another key recurring theme at the workshop was the asymmetry in power between donors and recipients; participants felt that the targets and indicators within the Paris Declaration are both better defined and require more action by recipients than donors. A number of times participants noted that they had fulfilled their part of the Paris bargain in a specific area, but donors had failed to deliver. Mutual accountability was seen as key to this, but to achieve this ownership, evidence, debate and above all trust are required. Participants questioned how well this deeply political issue will be handled in Accra.

The workshop also highlighted a number of issues that are not covered within the Paris framework, and yet are critical for achieving great effectiveness of aid. These include that:

  • Volumes of disbursement remain well below the 0.7% commitment by donors;
  • Aid is not allocated on the basis of need either at the country level or at the sector level;
  • The share of bilateral aid remains stubbornly higher than the multilateral share, yet political considerations drive many bilateral allocation decisions;
  • The increasing number of donor activities and their concentration into a limited number of sectors, particularly in sectors such as health and education,  is increasing transaction costs and further reducing partner government capacity; and
  • The changing way that aid is delivered is creating problems at the national level.

Participants at the workshop noted that the Paris Declaration’s emphasis on aid effectiveness indictors and principles, though important, is only an intermediate goal. It should not draw attention away from concerns about development effectiveness. This in turn should encompass economic growth and not just social indicators. They noted that HLF3’s value lies in the extent to which it can ensure high-level political input, not in its potential as a negotiating forum for aid geeks on technical issues.

Despite these criticisms, many workshop participants agreed that Paris is a good step forwards. They agreed though that it is not an end in itself, but that it must be seen as part of an on going process that started well before the forums in Paris (2005) and Rome (2003). The process will continue for at least another three years to HLF4 in 2011. But beyond HLF3’s explicit focus on aid effectiveness, there are a much wider set of processes focusing on development effectiveness. Many of these other processes are having their next significant public acts this year as well. The United Nations Development Cooperation Forum has already passed, and no sooner will people have got off the planes from Accra after HLF3 then they will climb back in again to go to New York for the United Nations MDG Call to Action. Finally, at the dog-end of the year, the tired geeks and technicians will decamp to Doha for the Follow-up International Conference on Financing for Development.

In many ways, it is too late to have these broader criticisms of the Paris process addressed at HLF3, but 2011 is not so far away. Rather than sinking into their armchairs for a well-earned breather after they arrive back from Doha, the geeks and aid technicians should develop a process in preparation for HLF4, which includes greater southern engagement and leadership right from the start. This process should include the identification of the research areas, definition both of the research questions and the final agenda. The Commonwealth offers one vehicle for achieving this. It could even start the process by releasing the first draft of the final declaration for HLF4 in early 2009, to set the terms of and help southern governments and civil society to properly own the debate about aid effectiveness. This is after all what the Paris Declaration recommends they should do.

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