Making aid more accountable is a worthy goal. So is building support for public spending on international aid among citizens of donor countries. But a new proposal with precisely these goals in mind risks disempowering the very people aid is supposed to help.
The proposal, which goes by the title Opening Aid Policy, is to give British citizens – call them taxpayers or voters if you prefer – a chance to shape British aid policy: first to determine aid priorities and then even to cast their vote on which specific projects should get funded.
The idea comes from Involve, who describe themselves as “experts in public participation”. They “believe passionately in a democracy where citizens are able to take and influence the decisions that affect their lives”. A great line; I wrote something similar myself once.
But a closer look at that quote also reveals the problem. When decisions about British aid spending in Tanzania, for example, are being made, who are the people whose lives will be most affected by those decisions? It’s not British taxpayers / voters / citizens. It’s the Tanzanians. By putting decisions in the hands of British citizens, those decisions are taken further away from the Tanzanians (or the Ghanaians / Zambians / etc.) that the aid is intended to help.
The Involve paper describes the British public as “the stakeholder” (singular) of aid work. No. The British public are just one stakeholder among many, and not even the most important one.
A major focus of development research and practice in recent years has been on how to make development work more accountable to people in developing countries. General budget support is about putting responsibility for spending decisions in the hands of recipient governments, helping to make democratic accountability meaningful. Much the same can be said about the whole governance-accountability-transparency movement and the participation agenda.
I’m sure Involve’s intentions are good, and I don’t doubt their credentials or the quality of the research that underpins this proposal. I even think it’s worth considering how aspects of their proposal could be used to help build support for aid among the UK public without further disenfranchising the poor in developing countries. I would also like to see how their experience of promoting participatory democracy in the UK could be used to get people in developing countries more involved in decision making that affects their lives.
But on this point, they’ve got it wrong. Development work is complicated, it involves multiple accountabilities. For some decisions, giving one group more of a say means another group will necessarily have less influence. And while taxpayers in donor countries should clearly have a role in deciding how aid money is used, for me it’s far more important to make sure the people whose lives that aid is trying to change are able to influence those decisions. That’s who it’s all for, after all.
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H/T Owen Barder