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‘Non-DAC donors’: reflections on an emerging research and public affairs agenda


At last week’s conference in York, the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI) and the Development Studies Association (DSA) proposed to rethink development in an age of scarcity and uncertainty by looking at new values, voices and alliances for increased resilience. The voices of the world’s emerging economies were in the spotlight, with several working groups and parallel sessions at the conference looking at China, India and Brazil as transnational economic powers and as sources of development finance to low-income countries.  Focusing on the latter, and on so-called ‘non-DAC donors’ as an emerging research topic and public affairs agenda, I’d like to share three observations. 

First, although there are plenty of anecdotal accounts on the quickly expanding development cooperation programmes of these mighty southerners, tangible evidence on the value added, impact and sustainability of their programmes – often referred to as South-South cooperation – remains in short supply. This is not surprising, as these are nascent programmes (at least in their current size and reach) and monitoring and evaluation are yet to be embedded into their operational systems.

Leaving aside the issue of access to information (a major inconvenience for those studying China’s experience), the incentives for establishing monitoring and evaluation routines, and hence generating data, are yet to be created. There are at least two reasons for such lack of interest in traceability and impact assessment. On the one hand, as research from ODI on Brazil suggests, the South-South exchange act (the moment when a cooperation agreement is signed or when a project is inaugurated) is the key moment in the development cooperation partnership between the poor (beneficiary) country and its richer southern counterpart. Such a short-term perspective reflects the subordination of development cooperation to foreign policy, which is less concerned with critical analysis of impact and more interested in more immediate and media-focused diplomatic affairs. On the other hand, public awareness about development cooperation with foreign countries within non-DAC donors’ own constituencies tends to be relatively limited and therefore there is little demand for accountability and transparency. Given these constraints, statements about the newness and exceptionality of non-DAC cooperation programmes should be restrained before sufficiently robust and independently verified evidence is brought to light. 

Second, and following on from the above, rhetoric thrives where evidence is in short supply – the risk being that claims of how groundbreaking and fit-for-purpose these cooperation programmes are to resolve the development conundrums of low-income countries quickly turn into conventional wisdom and crystallise as unquestionable features of ‘non-DAC donors’. In a context of widespread disillusion about the ability of the ‘traditional’ aid industry (the DAC members-dominated system) to resolve poverty, inequality and sustainable development challenges, it is tempting to look at these new development actors for the way forward. Let’s stay hopeful but beware of politically-motivated oratory and keep focused on the ultimate beneficiaries of development cooperation ventures, old and new.

My third and final observation concerns the application to ‘non-DAC donors’ of the concepts and standards established and used by DAC members, as illustrated by attempts to quantify the magnitude of South-South Official Development Assistance (ODA) flows and to assess these programmes’ conformity with the ‘aid effectiveness’ principles enshrined in the DAC-sponsored Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda for Action. Such exercises may be useful for comparative purposes, but they are insufficient to capture the features of these emerging cooperation programmes in a comprehensive and accurate manner. For example, South-South exchanges have a high symbolic value that stems beyond quantifications of financial transfers; this symbolism results from the association of southern exchanges and the Non-aligned movement and, in a related way, from the uplifting position granted to low-income countries when portrayed as equal partners of mutually beneficial relationships. Furthermore, emerging donors are themselves at a different stage of internal social-economic development and of insertion into the global stage, which means that the drivers and shapers of their development cooperation endeavours are necessarily different vis-à-vis traditional donors. Their assistance programmes should therefore be scrutinised using an adapted analysis framework that takes into account the motivations and dilemmas they face as development partners – for example, the paradox of foreign aid-giving for  a country struggling itself to address poverty and inequality internally. Such perspective may reveal similarities between what some of these actors are facing today, and what some mature donors experienced in the past. 

In trying to fit ‘non-DAC donors’ into the orthodox aid framework the opportunity may be missed for a renewed and more inclusive perspective on international development finance. A step in the right direction would be to account for other public flows for development beyond ODA, and therefore generate a fuller picture of how DAC and non-DAC members are – under different guises – engaging with poor countries. Will the current aid order resist the mounting pressure for change in its norms and standards? Will it be able to accommodate the different values and rules emanating from the South? A lot will (or should) depend on the ability of the highly heterogeneous ‘non-DAC’ group to move beyond rhetoric and towards a credible showcase of practices that are making a difference for those in need.