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The glass is half full at the fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness

I am on the plane to South Korea, for the fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness. Not so long ago many of us were fearing a damp squib in Busan, but the indications now are that it will be far from that: with big ticket political representation; a clear focus on country-led results frameworks; and the basics of a new global partnership on international development cooperation to replace the 20th century version that has seriously passed its expiry date.

A week is a long time in political negotiations, but there are a few things to be positive about even before the conference starts.  

First, is the apparent willingness of China (among other non-DAC countries) to sign up to the preamble of the Outcome Document (OD).  If it happens, this will mean important statements of principle on their part which are very welcome, and it will be in line with some of ODI’s work on the importance of the HLF balancing the focus on the unfinished business of Paris-Accra with expanding global reach as part of a new partnership for development. The role and approach of the Chinese delegation will have a strong influence on how the success or otherwise of Busan will be perceived.

Second, there has been much discussion about the importance and meaning of ‘ownership’ and the Busan OD puts this firmly back on the agenda in the form of country-led results frameworks. What the discussions need to avoid, however, is the pitfalls of Paris in which ownership was assumed to be a reality (as expressed in the adoption of national development plans) rather than something achieved over time – in other words an outcome rather than an input. David Booth’s Working Paper on this makes it clear we need to put the politics back into the aid effectiveness debate, starting with dispensing with naive concepts of country ownership.

Third, one of the most important concrete commitments likely to emerge at Busan will be on transparency. Thanks to leadership from a number of countries, and the impressive campaign led by Publish What You Fund and its director, ex-ODI Research Fellow Karin Christiansen, transparency looks set to become a key principle of all development cooperation, even if there is still a last-minute fight to get time-bound commitments from the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) into the final draft.   

Finally, with all the talk of a new kind of partnership it remains clear that different country contexts require different aid instruments and development cooperation modalities, not least because institutional development is so diverse across the world.  The proposed New Deal for Fragile States, led by the G7+ countries, could be one of the boldest new initiatives agreed at Busan in this area. Much of what is being proposed draws deeply on ODI research and advice, particularly the recent work of our Budget Strengthening Initiative.

There are other themes that will get some airing in Busan, even if they do not ultimately influence the OD itself.  There is the theme of ‘catalytic aid’, which is the focus of Andrew Rogerson’s recent paper and podcast, and the related ideas behind ‘smart aid’ – a term favoured by the UK’s Andrew Mitchell  – and the recent focus of an ODI Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal.  Many of these themes come together in our Development Progress Stories, which identify inter alia when and how development partnerships – public, private and third sector – work best for progress.  In the next phase of this work, which we are starting this year, we will look even more closely at the financial stories behind inspirational development outcomes, in the hope of providing strong evidence upon which policy-makers in donor and receiving countries can make future choices about development finance.

Of course the danger for Busan is that nothing changes and development actors come, give prepared speeches and leave without hearing each other and avoid the political choices being presented to them. We’ll keep you posted through the week on whether we see the glass as half full or half empty, but for now I am hopeful at least that it will be half full.