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Old puzzles, new pieces: putting the development jigsaw together

Written by Gideon Rabinowitz

Many of us want to change the world, but we often forget that the world is already changing itself. Over the past 50 years, efforts to reduce poverty through aid, and more broadly through development cooperation, have had to adapt to constant change. This need for critical evaluation of contexts and challenges has helped make development cooperation a much more dynamic policy space than many would imagine.

But even for those who are used to accommodating change, it is hard to get a handle on the current upheavals:

  • development contexts that are evolving faster than ever before, with many low income countries making good progress, while others still struggle to escape their development constraints and fragile states become a more prominent challenge  

  • a community of development actors that is more diverse than ever before, with the increasing prominence of emerging economies as donors (China’s annual aid is as large as many OECD donors), their assistance growing rapidly and new private actors (e.g. the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) becoming more engaged

  • approaches to development finance that are expanding more rapidly than ever, driven by the tools of new actors, global financial innovation and the growth of climate finance initiatives such as REDD.

At the same time, governments that provide development cooperation are being challenged to support countries more effectively (such as Liberia and Rwanda) to end their dependency on aid.  Aid agencies are also under greater pressure than ever to achieve results as public spending cuts in Western economies put pressure on aid budgets.

The development community is beginning to explore these trends and challenges and their implications. However, given their significance for governments and global policy processes, such as the post-MDGs agenda, we still don’t know enough about the implications. Without clearer evidence, some of these trends are in danger of being overplayed, while others may be in danger of being understated. Even the Economist has been stumped by the nuances around aid from China and debates about aid to India rarely get past headlines about its multi-million dollar space programme.

The limited progress that some aid agencies have made in understanding and responding to these trends could weaken their effectiveness in this new context. ODI’s recently published report  Horizon 2025 highlights how the major traditional aid agencies are still some way from reorienting their activities to respond to these trends.

The time is ripe for debate. That’s why ODI’s Centre for Aid and Public Expenditure (CAPE) is putting these questions at the centre of its research agenda, including a focus on aid to middle income countries, country experiences with new cooperation actors and new tools to promote aid effectiveness. This is also why CAPE is hosting a major conference on these very issues. The CAPE Conference 2012 - Old puzzles, new Pieces: development cooperation in tomorrow’s world - will hone in on the challenges posed by these major global changes.

Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Managing Director of the World Bank, will headline the conference, sharing her insights on how the Bank is addressing these questions. ODI researchers will present their views on these questions based on what’s emerging from our latest findings. But  participants will also join the conference from all over the world: senior officials and academics from Brazil, China, Mexico and South Africa will present their views on South-South cooperation; and officials from Afghanistan, Liberia and South Sudan will illuminate discussions on the challenges facing fragile states and the role of donors.

For the first time, the whole conference will be completely open to the public through a live broadcast online and questions will be fielded from around the world through the ODI website and on social media. This matters. While much of what will be debated rarely makes it beyond a narrow circle of aid geeks and policy wonks, the answers may affect the lives of millions around the globe. It’s only right that we open the debate up to a wider audience.

While we may not go into the conference with all – or even most – of the answers, we hope that CAPE 2012 will move us closer to ensuring that development cooperation responds not only to today’s development challenges, but also to those of tomorrow and beyond.