Opening aid, but in the wrong direction

Cartoon adapted from HakiElimu, 2005

Cartoon adapted from HakiElimu, 2005

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

4 thoughts on “Opening aid, but in the wrong direction

  1. Simon Burall

    Thanks for taking the time to look at this. Did you look at the full report as well as the blog post? The blog post you link to was intended to be the ‘bells and whistles’ idealistic public engagement process resulting from years of much simpler and less risky public engagement. I should have made that clearer in the post.The summary is short and relatively easy to read I hope.

    Having worked on issues of aid effectiveness as well as accountability and ownership of aid and development for over a decade I understand totally where you are coming from and what your concerns are. However, my own view is that trying to keep what happens in aid recipient countries away from the debate in donor countries undermines accountability in both countries.

    This can be seen in obvious and less obvious ways, but stems from the same issue. Both DFID and development NGOs in the UK tend to communicate what they are doing in terms of simple metrics – you only have to look at requests for donations to see this, almost at random

    And I think this method of communication twists everything. We see it every disaster, as well meaning members of the public pull together truck loads of the most inappropriate goods to save the starving babies. But it has more insidious effects too. Because we tell citizens in the UK that we are achieving simple things, like bed nets or feeding stations, we have to collect information in a way that allows us to tell this story in a more convincing way. This prevents us from learning what we are really doing, having a proper dialogue with citizens in recipient countries and so undermining the very accountability that we need.

    I believe that if we could get beyond the simplistic notion that UK citizens can’t possibly understand aid so we can’t possibly talk to them like about it, then we can actually get ourselves into the position where we can establish – a long term, totally idealistic goal – dialogues between UK citizens and Tanzanian citizens (for example) about the trade-offs we are making as well as visions for future developments. In doing so we will strengthen accountability mechanisms in both countries and hence deepen democracy in both countries. My worry about the view you express above is that aid is too important to worry about democratic accountability in the UK – why should accountability in Tanzania be more important than in the UK? Our report highlights how citizens are able to take very nuanced views about very complex topics – much more complex than the aid and development question – and in doing so they strengthen the policy rather than weaken it.

    We really have to get beyond the deficit model – that UK citizens don’t understand aid and if only they did then they’d support it. We are making a series of practical and moral trade-offs the whole time as we deliver aid; there is no right way to deliver aid. There are instead a series of different ways that offer different visions of the future. I believe that UK citizens have a right to be involved in that conversation.

  2. Brendan Whitty

    I don’t actually think the two positions are mutually exclusive – in fact, it is precisely your point about multiple accountabilities that the paper was responding to. Our argument was perhaps a counter-intuitive one: that rethinking accountability to the British public would free up space for more politically astute and appropriate accountability to those intended to benefit from development. At the moment, we tend to obscure the difficulties to the British public which makes development aid risk averse and short-term, less able to build stable feedback loops to those the development community is intending to help.

    The reality is that aid is too often driven by spending decisions and priorities in the North. The principle of ownership has dominated development support, but is often undercut by the power imbalances intrinsic to the development enterprise – as illustrated by the lack of progress on the old Paris principle of mutual accountability, where ownership really bites. Participation as a principle has been confronted with similar well-documented challenges, too often devolving to a kind of ventriloquism. The upsurge in the desire to make aid auditable and subject to technical expertise – the so-called ‘results agenda’ – seems to have entrenched mechanical forms of accountability ‘upwards’, to use the tired spatial metaphors. We think that is in part due to a fear of engaging the British people.

    We believe that refining how the development sector accounts upwards will open space for more politically astute, more stable and more meaningful accountability where development is happening – not simply mechanical feedback mechanisms of pre-established goals, but a more nuanced discussion on the values and aims for development funds. As Simon mentions, we believe this involves squaring the British public on the realities, trade-offs and difficulties of aid, through a more open and nuanced discussion of the priorities and values at the core of development – including a mature discussion of whose priorities count. It would also act to enhance and make more meaningful the commendable drive towards greater transparency that you mention.

  3. mtega

    Thanks, Simon and Brendan, for adding your responses here. I agree that we are not as far apart in our views as it might at first seem.

    In particular, I wholeheartedly agree that the dominant development narrative in the UK is the vastly oversimplified and damaging fundraising message – heavy on simple statements of a problem and a (money-dependent) solution, and low on both dignity and recognition of the complex political and economic causes of poverty.

    We do differ on a couple of points, however. First, I maintain that priority in aid accountability has to be given to those who development efforts are intended to assist. It’s all done in their name, and they’re generally in a position that makes it very difficult to make their voice heard.

    Second, while I recognise that your position is that engaging UK citizens in a proper discussion about the trade-offs and challenges in development work will make it easier to shift policy towards more effective aid (rather than populist aid), I am not fully convinced on this point. Even within the development industry there are plenty of people for whom development is no more complicated that need-money-technology. And when I talk to non development people about what I do – analytical and communications work on governance/accountability – I generally get blank stares in response. Overcoming this will not come easy, though I would love to see it done.

    1. Simon Burall

      Thanks all round, it’s been really helpful needing to engage with this as it exposes a tension in our argument. In the end I am not sure that the two sides are mutually exclusive – though I agree with you that accountability to aid recipient citizens is critical and must not be overshadowed by accountability to other actors.

      At the moment, as Brendan says accountability to aid recipient citizens is currently done very badly, and it’s not clear to me that much will change. Indeed, the risk is that the results agenda will make things worse. Our thesis is that by engaging the UK public in a meaningful dialogue with aid and development professionals it will, in the long run, tend to help rather than hinder better recipient accountability.

      Two things would lead me to revise that view. First that it is a zero sum game, that there is only enough effort, money etc to ensure accountability in one direction. I don’t believe this to be true; Bernard Martin’s paper on why aid agencies exist (the real genesis of our work in this area btw) demonstrates clearly that DFID is institutionally compelled to face in two directions and ensure accountability in both.

      The second is that doing accountability badly in the UK would make things worse for accountability to aid recipients. Here I realise we are on much less safe ground, and it is this that motivates much of the fear that is preventing DFID and NGOs from engaging UK citizens differently. However, firstly I’m not sure we could get accountability to aid recipient citizens much worse. Secondly, it depends whether your view is short term or longer term. It is possible that in the short term the delivery of aid might go backwards, but in the longer term, as long as the right accountability loops between experts and citizens on both sides are set-up, the mutual learning would improve aid, and stabilise it, making it harder to deliver poorly designed, unaccountable aid packages. Indeed, get it right and you can build the learning between Tanzanian (for example) and UK citizens rather that the current total disconnect that exists between them. The examples we give in the paper drawn from citizen engagement in policy involving science and technology suggest that policy tends to get better not worse. The question is whether you believe the read-over from that sector is good enough or not.

      Your point about aid professionals who think that it is all about money transfer rather makes my point I feel – and is deeply worrying (name names, they need shaming!!!). The accountability to citizens in aid recipient countries is so weak they can persist in their self-created warm glow that they are ‘doing good’ because they lack the self-awareness and willingness to reflect on the trade-offs they are making the whole time. Let’s expose them to the full glare of accountability back home; well run deliberative process would expose them quickly and efficiently. It would have the added benefit of allowing our evaluation mechanisms to look at the things that really matter rather than the things that we tell our citizens really matter. Keeping things as they are is not working, it is elitest and anti-democratic. At least this is the warm cocoon of righteousness that I am currently wrapping around myself!

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