I am doing a series of articles on the book “Rethinking Canadian Aid” (University of Ottawa Press, 2015), and now it’s time for “Chapter 4: Power and Policy: Lessons from Aid Effectiveness” by Molly den Heyer. I confess that I have little interest in power dynamics in most policy discussions, mostly because the literature often focuses on uni-dimensional aspects of power (such as one issue, or one policy area) or relative power (governments vs. people), when what is often more important is the personal power of the individuals involved, the power of the context itself, or the incremental power differentials (i.e. slightly more power on economics than social) and corresponding offsets (i.e. more give and take in certain areas that end up with more take because there was more give in another area).
These competing policy frameworks (aid effectiveness and accountability) and associated formal institutions illustrate how other forms of visible power often stand as obstacles to or diversions from the implementation of aid policy and its intended change.
I think there is a lot more meat behind this issue, and may not be one of power so much as the difference between ideals and practical realities. Den Heyer outlines how aid effectiveness policies argued for country ownership (that would include practices like general budget support) and accountability policies (that argue for clear pots of money with direct attribution of results). Negotiators of international agreements face a clear challenge when it comes to language and the individual capacity and mandates of each country — do you use high-level, idealistic, hortatory language (with the hidden implication that each member will try to live up to it to the best of their ability, within their national constraints) or do you limit the wording to something everyone can live with (lowest common denominator)?
I’ll use a couple of very different examples to explain what I mean. When the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was being negotiated, you can easily imagine that not only did countries like the Nordics have different approaches to human rights than a country like China or the Sudan, they also had vastly different capacities to implement. But if you only agree to explicit language that everyone could live with, or that 51% could live with, the commitment would be pretty low. And if you went with what everyone could live with, there’s no point to the agreement — you wouldn’t be moving the measuring sticks at all. So international agreements are always written in language that is meant to be hortatory — encouraging countries to move closer to a higher ideal, sometimes thought of as a “future highest common numerator” as a percentage of the theoretical denominator of everything that “could” be done. So, to use the example of aid effectiveness, every country signed on for “developing country ownership”. For some, whose Parliaments and systems allow for easy budget support, that was what they were agreeing to; for Canada, it was, is, and probably always will be “best efforts”. One of the differences is that Canada often discusses this issue opening in international negotiations, i.e. the difference between theory and reality, while others sign on with no intention of changing anything. So we can’t do direct budget support over $20M; instead, we do several sectoral supports of less than $20M. Not as ideal as it could be, and may even be skirting accountability rules, but it is the “best” Canada has been able to do within the system we have.
A related question shows up in the discussion of grants vs. contributions and goes to what den Heyer discusses in terms of “adaptation”. For those in the business, contributions are agreements between the partners and CIDA where it outlines who is going to contribute what, with what process in place, what results there will be, how often the reporting will be done, etc. It’s detailed, and spells out everyone’s (mostly the partners’) responsibilities with a lot of conditions. Put a different way, it says “CIDA will give you this amount of money to do x project with y activities to produce z results that you will report to us here and here”.
Grants, by contrast, are supposed to be condition-free. What that means is that we (as the government) have reviewed an organization, such as UNICEF, like what they’re doing in general, think they have good systems in place to manage money and results, and so we want to give that organization a grant. Few conditions, few audit controls, no direct attribution of results to our specific funding, but they’ll give us a copy of their overall report when they’re done. No muss, no fuss, low reporting burden. Except lots of program managers don’t like grants — they give up control (the power issues that den Heyer discusses — and so they take the grant agreement and tweak it. They add more reporting. They add more expected results. They add more conditions. And suddenly you have a new beast called a “grantribution”. This is essentially the same issue central agencies have with direct budgetary support — so they bastardize the standard approach to get a whole bunch of the missing “elements” without much push-back to say “Nope, that’s not the ideal” and “we can live without it”. It would be the bravest of politicians or officials of any stripe or level to say publicly, “No, it’s okay, we don’t need to know what results you achieved with our funding.” Some of this goes to the lack of in-depth knowledge discussed in Critique of Rethinking Canadian Aid – Chapter 2 – Refashioning Humane internationalism and Critique of Rethinking Canadian Aid – Chapter 3 – Ethical Foundations. Some of the NGOs like to criticize direct budgetary support for its apparent lack of demonstrable results, for example, while still screaming for “country-led ownership”. What some of the more cynical interpret that to mean is “but direct budget support goes to GOVERNMENTS who don’t give it to the Canadian NGOs!”.
Overall, though, I think what is missing is the recognition that it is not that countries are being evil and pursuing their own interests, or lying when they sign on to agreements. The truth is both simpler and more insidious — all the players in the room and elsewhere know that a document is nothing more than an abstraction of reality, and that while everyone will make best efforts towards the outcomes, the outcomes are not destinations but journeys in a certain direction. In human rights terms, at least for economic and social rights, it is about progressive realization over time, not the immediate realization of civil or political rights. Such a recognition would get some of the NGOs and academics out of the ivory tower and closer to a connection to the real world that the aid workers have to face every day.
The Paris Declaration calls for partner countries to strengthen their government systems and for donors to use these systems to distribute aid. Yet, within the aid corridors, donors are reluctant to relinquish control of aid dollars over concerns around accountability to taxpayers, corruption in recipient countries, and general lack of capacity. As a result, some donors (including CIDA) set demanding preconditions and effectively stall policy implementation under the rubric of feasibility.
It is the use of the term rubric that pulls that excerpt from analysis into rhetoric, and gets at the point I made above about accepting the reality of the aid worker’s world as an equally valid paradigm, not an aberration. Later, the author talks about the compromises leading to “significant policy drift”.
The aid workers are not “hiding” reality. They are not adding the preconditions for no reason. Accountability, corruption, and capacity are real — and they do impact feasibility. More so than simple power dynamics, yet are tossed aside as mere inconveniences. Even when you take out accountability to the taxpayer who provides the funds or potential corruption siphoning off resources, if the remaining money cannot be managed with enough capacity to deliver results, then not only was the project a waste, but it likely did more to cement existing “power” relations than any “successful” project ever could. While not usually put in any writing document, some public relations people in development agencies have a small guideline called the “power of fifty rule”. Put simply, they have to review the results of about fifty “successful” projects just to find one that might resonate and can be turned into a workable promotion item. But it only takes one bad project to have the same level of negative impact. The corruption scandal, the empty school, the ambulance converted into a military support vehicle — these examples carry far more weight than the governance meeting that went well, direct budgetary support, or a health literacy project.
Second, Western managerial standards extend to all facets of development.
I’ll be curious to see if any of the rest of the book gets into this area. Beyond what den Heyer refers to, there is a rich area here ranging from the management-by-numbers approach of the late 80s/early 90s to the consultative processes loved in the late 90s to a resurgence of macro governance issues in the early to mid-2000s. And not just for the projects pushing those managerial concepts into the zeitgeist of development implementation, nor only for the aid agency reporting burden on project managers, but also for the aid agencies themselves — new reporting requirements, the move to more data analytics in-house on operations, etc. All three areas are adjusting to an enhanced focus on management, and I’m hoping some of the other chapters might look at them individually or the linkages between them.
First, the complexity of international politics continues to grow with multipolar international politics and the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China (BRICs). The BRICs, along with many recipient countries, are questioning the traditional postcolonial approach to aid. […] Second, global poverty can no longer be described neatly by a North–South distinction. Instead, extreme wealth and poverty reside side-by-side within the same countries — or in Michael Edwards’s (2013, 3) words — there are now “pockets of extreme poverty and conflict.”
I’m a bit surprised this section about the BRICS and coexistence of wealth and poverty are left to the end and given so little attention. The BRICs, for example, are indeed changing the nature of development discourse, and while many see them as the “saviours” in that they may better understand the developing country reality, my personal opinion is that not only do they indeed understand it better, they are actively using that understanding to exploit the other countries for their own self-interest. While lots of NGOs decry the debate in Canada and elsewhere about “self-interest” and aid policy, in China and Brazil, the debate was over before it began — it is entirely about self-interest. China’s aid to Africa directly mirrors their commercial and political interests, and votes at the United Nations and elsewhere directly mirror their influence. Taiwan, for example, led the way in some respects by giving aid to countries that would recognize it as a country, with China quickly following along with other aid to prevent the same country from speaking. For most of the BRICs, they see aid in a longitudinal fashion — they have seen how many of the main OECD countries in the past have maintained ties and influence to developing countries with their aid, and they intend to shift global power through the same measures. Yet the same group of four also have huge income disparities within their own countries that are not yet resolved — the number of people in Brazil, China and India living below the poverty line dwarf the entire populations of all other developing countries combined. Distributive politics should be a much bigger area for study as the BRICs move farther into the donor world, mainly because issues of tied aid, donor harmonization, aid effectiveness, country-led development — the buzzwords of the discourse — are completely missing from their vocabulary except as afterthoughts. Some who are quite cynical about the BRICs summarize it as simply “their turn to exploit developing countries”. Now that’s a power play that would be worth analyzing.