- Are ’Horizontal Partnerships’ the key to progress in Busan?
The implementation of the Paris Declaration has lost steam. It lacks sufficient high-level political support and it is carried out within a framework of unequal relations between donors and receivers. South-South cooperation may provide the impetus for a necessary reform of development cooperation.
The ideas of horizontal partnerships and shared ownership are important steps towards effective development cooperation. With the increasing political influence of middle-income countries these ideas may get some recognition in Busan. However, the crucial question is whether they can push traditional donors to change their approach and more fundamentally embrace the spirit of the commitments they have made in the Paris Declaration.
However, as long as aid is tied to voluntary decisions and domestic political processes in rich countries, it is unlikely to become as effective as it should be. International organisations devoted exclusively to development and poverty reduction and based on some sort of international financing would be much better able to engage in equitable, trustful and long-term partnerships with the least developed countries.
The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, adopted by more than 100 countries and organizations in 2005 and confirmed in Accra in 2008, was a major step forward in trying to organize international development cooperation. Though much criticism has been raised of the aid effectiveness agenda – it is too technical, it erroneously assumes that all actors are concerned about poverty reduction, it risks creating donor cartels undermining ownership, there is no common understanding of key concepts, etc. – there is little doubt that the Declaration has had a significant influence on what is considered to be good development cooperation.
The just published Evaluation of the Paris Declaration confirms this:
“Compared with the aid situation 20 to 25 years ago current practice presents a global picture of far greater transparency and far less donor-driven aid today. […] There is ample evidence here that these standards [of better practice and partnership] have been used to reinforce or legitimize demands – especially from partner countries – that good practice be observed. There is no going back – expectations are more likely to keep rising than to diminish – so that the standard expected has permanently been raised for all engaged in development cooperation.” (p. xii)
Why, then, does one get the impression that the donor support for the Declaration is getting lukewarm? The British White Paper Eliminating World Poverty (July 2009) has turned the aid effectiveness agenda into a discussion of results and value for money, and the Danish Development Strategy from 2010 mentions the Paris Declaration only in passing. Moreover, senior managers of major German and French donor agencies have stated publicly that the principles of harmonization, alignment and ownership have been taken too far: They cannot constitute the guiding signposts of development cooperation. Therefore, one may wonder whether the next High Level Meeting in Busan this November will constitute the Declaration’s funeral.
Indirectly, there is some support for this view in the evaluation of the Declaration. It states clearly:
“With a number of striking exceptions, donors and agencies have so far demonstrated less commitment than partner countries to making the necessary changes in their own systems.” (p. xi)
The reasons for the suboptimal performance of donor agencies are numerous and include:
“[A] lack of coherent policies or structures; a focus on compliance and a risk-averse culture; the over-centralisation of many donors’ and agencies’ systems and decisions running counter to alignment with country systems; disconnects between corporate strategies and the aid effectiveness agenda and weak organisational incentives; changes in organisational status or headquarters location; capacity constraints and staff reductions; and delayed organisational reforms and budgetary pressures arising from the financial crisis.” (p. x)
The organisational nature of many of these problems stands out, but there is no doubt that the main underlying issue here is a lacking high level political commitment to the Paris Declaration in donor countries. At best, politicians regard it as a bureaucratic concern with no political relevance. At worst, it is seen as a straitjacket preventing donor governments from pursuing national interests or political objectives with public funds.
Within circles committed to development cooperation there is undoubtedly still a strong support for the principles and ideas in the Paris Declaration and those actors can use the Evaluation to strengthen their case. However, if high-level political engagement in donor countries is absent in Busan, donor agencies can and will not push the agenda forward. What, then, may create support for the Declaration?
At the previous High Level Forum in Accra in 2008 the changing architecture of development cooperation was recognised and some attention was directed towards South-South and triangular cooperation. Subsequently, a Task Team on South-South Cooperation (TT-SSC) was formed in 2009 as an international platform of now more than 80 countries and institutions. The platform is a Southern-led initiative and it seeks to disseminate knowledge about cooperation between countries in the South and about such cooperation supported by countries in the North (triangular cooperation).
In documents prepared for Busan, TT-SSC emphasises the importance of “’Horizontal Partnerships’ based on equity, trust, mutual benefit and long-term relations.” This is clearly an attempt to break with widespread seemingly ‘vertical’ partnerships that are not perceived to include equity, trust, etc. Indirectly, the idea of horizontal partnerships, which gets traditional development cooperation on a sore point, indicates that partnerships created within the framework of the Paris Declaration tend to be unequal and based on ‘one-way development cooperation’. What is needed is mutuality, and to hammer the point through, TT-SSC calls for ‘shared ownership’ – an idea directly challenging the basic orientation of the Declaration.
TT-SSC underlines that traditional donors can have a role to play in triangular cooperation and in support of South-South cooperation. They can, accordingly, be involved in partnerships characterized by equity and trust. This is probably all the more likely if multilateral institutions were acknowledged a facilitating role in setting up triangular cooperation. These institutions are less affected by non-developmental objectives and can therefore potentially strengthen the poverty focus of the new partnerships. Still, this would require that donors try to cope with the structural weaknesses of traditional development cooperation as identified by TT-SSC: For instance, its gift-like nature due to the one-way transfer of knowledge and resources; and the lack of cultural affinity, common challenges, and shared backgrounds which often facilitate the interaction of Southern partners.
The ideas of horizontal partnerships and shared ownership constitute a significant step forward in moving towards effective development cooperation. With the increasing political influence of middle-income countries and, in particular, emerging economies, these ideas may get some recognition in Busan. However, the crucial question is whether they can push traditional donors to change their approach and more fundamentally embrace the spirit of the commitments they have made in the Paris Declaration. As South-South cooperation is an attractive option primarily, though not only, for middle-income countries, there is still a serious need for improving traditional development cooperation in the poorest countries.
A potential driver of change is if traditional donors feel that they get sidelined by the new ideas. Though not mentioned officially, geo-political interests continue to play a significant role in development cooperation, and few donors would like to see their aid turned down because it is viewed as ineffective. Therefore, the pressure on donor country governments must be maintained by bringing out their inadequate political support of the principles of the Paris Declaration.
However, one may wonder whether this is enough. Isn’t it time for a move towards a multilateral organisation of development cooperation? As long as aid is tied to voluntary decisions and domestic political processes in rich countries, it is unlikely to become as effective as it should be. International organisations devoted exclusively to development and poverty reduction and based on some sort of international financing would be much better able to engage in equitable, trustful and long-term partnerships with the least developed countries.
¹ This is a slightly modified version of a Comment first published at www.diis.dk