Improving the effectiveness of global development spending may seem like a fool's errand given the state of the world today. Yet this is precisely the task of the 3rd High-Level Meeting of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation (GPEDC) taking place this week.
The GPEDC aims to revitalise political commitments to the four principles of development effectiveness: achieving results, inclusiveness, country ownership, and transparency and accountability. On the table is a tweaked approach to monitoring development effectiveness, changing both what is measured and how in order to better serve country-based decision-makers. It is hoped this will deliver on country priorities, ensure data uptake and create behavioural change that leads to better outcomes.
Absent, however, is an honest reflection on the domestic political challenges and ongoing obligations of Northern providers within this agenda. The risk is that the GPEDC’s proposed changes represent too little, too late for reinvigorating the effectiveness movement among the Northern governments who cut the largest cheques for development, and where scepticism remains widespread.
Why has development effectiveness been challenged?
Starting in 2003, the movement to improve development effectiveness spans a near-twenty-year history. In 2005, the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness resolved to take ‘far-reaching and monitorable actions to reform the ways we monitor and deliver aid’. Progress was to be tracked at the country level against 12 indicators, with direct responsibility falling on wealthy Northern donors and aid-receiving nations. However, at the follow-up meeting in Busan, South Korea in 2011, only one target had been achieved.
Meanwhile, the binary distinction between donors and recipients adopted in the Paris Declaration came under fire. Southern nations increasingly displayed both the capacity to provide development cooperation and the eligibility to receive support. The original formulation of aid as a charitable intervention by wealthy donors to catalyse the industrial transformation of poorer recipients in the image of the rich seemed incongruous with this reality. Moreover, the idea that all countries could follow a linear, carbon-intensive transformation may have made sense to the post-war creators of the modern development industry, but now feels positively anachronistic.
As the moorings of aid wobbled because of the growing power of Southern providers, so too did the global effectiveness movement. Southern providers view their cooperation as an expression of solidarity, neutrality and mutual respect for other Southern nations, while Northern aid is viewed through the historical prism of an obligation to the South framed by the 0.7 official development assistance (ODA)/gross national income target. To accommodate these different conceptualisations, a broadened remit had to reference the wider territory development effectiveness and recognise the special circumstances of Southern cooperation, which included deferring the definition of their effectiveness commitments and opting out of monitoring protocols.
In a bid to woo the South into accepting the universal applicability of development effectiveness, Development Assistance Committee (DAC) donors have ultimately downgraded their own standards, commitments and responsibilities. Moving away from aid to development has allowed a far greater locus of objectives and activities to be included under the umbrella of effectiveness. A multi-stakeholder partnership has widened priority agendas and interests, disassociating effectiveness from its narrow(-er) focus on aid processes and applying it instead to the almost limitless fuzziness of development.
The consequence of bringing the South into the fold of effectiveness is a looser, voluntary approach to monitoring led by recipient countries positively opting in. There is limited political momentum for the agenda among the providers who are meant to be held accountable by the GPEDC and the vast and complex performance management apparatus it has spawned. Recent research suggests there is no clear statistical relationship between the effectiveness principles and better development outcomes. Unfortunately, the reforms on the table at this week's GPEDC meeting do not indicate a strong desire to dramatically alter this status quo. With engagement optional and almost no costs to non-compliance, provider nations are able to shirk their responsibilities for ensuring development spending and support are delivering against effectiveness principles.
Where do we go from here?
At Busan, the then-Secretary-General of the OECD said that ‘the true achievement of the Busan High-Level Forum is the shift from talking about aid to talking about development’. This shift has arguably been a source of confusion, not triumph, for the effectiveness movement. The fundamental problem lies in the multiple meanings of development that exist today as a result of the (rightful) discrediting of development premised on foreign aid and donor/recipient binaries, a model for which no robust substitute has yet to be found.
Several narratives that co-exist and circulate today animate Northern providers of development cooperation. My recent paper suggests there are at least three narratives vying to frame development policy objectives and the causal relationships that lead to their achievement.
- A supra-nationalist narrative orients towards the provision of global public goods for the benefit of all, exemplified in the global effort to mobilise support for the pandemic preparedness fund or the $100 billion climate finance target.
- A nationalist narrative seeks to cultivate geopolitical power and influence. This inspires multi-national development infrastructure schemes like the EU Global Gateway and the G7 Partnership for Infrastructure and Investment that are presented as direct responses to China's Belt and Road Initiative.
- A solidaristic narrative tackles the global scourge of inequality. Ideas like Global Public Investment (GPI) draw on this narrative to suggest the reconstruction of aid as a permanent investment flow involving all countries oriented towards cultivating a shared, common good.
Contemporary development policy is animated by these three narratives. All three seek to reframe development as a different kind of relationship between low- and high-income countries. Yet, they are not mutually exclusive as ideas like 'just transition', 'feminist foreign policy' and 'digital infrastructure' can draw on several simultaneously.
Building a political consensus around development effectiveness requires recognising the legitimacy of the divergent objectives represented by each narrative. These will contour the goals, modalities and accountability relations of development effectiveness differently.
For example, a supranational narrative underlines the importance of inter-governmental mechanisms for tackling global public ills like climate change. To date, there is no robust compliance mechanism to ensure duty bearers for ODA and non-ODA investments meet their quantifiable climate finance targets in a manner where responsibilities are shared fairly. Effectiveness principles like mutual accountability could inform the creation of formulae to allocate differential responsibility for climate-induced loss and damage, as well as monitor compliance against them.
Meanwhile, as Northern providers explicitly articulate the geo-economic objectives behind their infrastructure push, some critical effectiveness principles like country ownership and transparency may be at risk. Tracking possible trade-offs, especially among DAC members for whom effectiveness ambitions have a twenty-year history and where formal commitments have previously been made, may be one way to ensure geopolitical goals do not overwhelm obligations towards effective development.
We are living in a world where a North-South division between countries is delegitimised, where challenges are increasingly global and where the territory of effectiveness has tethered itself to an expansive understanding of development that has allowed multiple narratives to bloom.
At this juncture in the development story, perhaps the best way to ‘re-build trust through effective development cooperation’ would be for the Northern donors to invite reflection and scrutiny of their own roles and responsibilities towards development effectiveness within each narrative. Leading by example is likely the best way to encourage other providers to follow suit.