Politics and aid effectiveness

Election day in Ethiopia seems like a good day to break my self-imposed ban on blogging about aid and politics and begin to share my reflections about the relationship between the two in Ethiopia.

Owen Barder has an interesting post about aid effectiveness which gives his take on why the Paris agenda is not working. He had been invited to participate in a retreat for the Development Assistance Group (26 donors) as they reflect on what they do and how they could do it better.

What struck me most about Owen’s presentation to the DAG was that his analysis of why Paris isn’t working is – other than two brief mentions of accountability – completely silent about the role of politics in aid effectiveness (and the role of aid in influencing supposedly domestic politics in developing countries). This might be because Owen is a self-described economist and I am not, but nevertheless it came as a bit of a surprise. Donor behaviour is certainly part of the problem and one which Owen’s ideas might go some way to address, but the reason why aid is not as effective as it might be is surely in large part because of the political contexts into which aid is pumped and the fact that donors’ behaviour is insufficiently informed by good understanding of those contexts.

Those of us from donor countries no doubt have more leverage – and, Owen might argue, more legitimacy – in seeking to influence the behaviour of their own governments/aid agencies, but if aid is to be made more effective then it needs to be provided in ways that are informed by a good understanding of the realities of governance and politics on the ground in the specific contexts where it is provided. This isn’t easy and presents its own dilemmas about where the line is between donors legitimately seeking to ensure that their actions are informed by a good understanding of the political landscape and interfering unhelpfully in that landscape, but it seems to me to be an essential complement to the sort of approach that Owen advocates. And, it is a perspective that is – post-Accra, with the notion of ownership more seriously interrogated and the importance of multiple accountabilities considered – at least beginning to influence the aid effectiveness agenda.

Sue Unsworth (drawing on her recent piece on “What’s politics got to do with it? Why donors find it so hard to come to terms with politics and why this matters”) and Mick Moore had an interesting piece on Open Democracy about this and about what they have been calling “an upside down view of governance” [I think it should be inside-out and upside-down – emphasising that one should look at different things as well as look at things differently]. ┬áDavid Booth too (my former colleague at ODI) draws on a similar analysis in his suggestions as to how the aid effectiveness agenda needs to be reformed.

Owen’s presentation had two other elements in it that provoked responses from me, responses that relate to my take on the failings of the aid effectiveness agenda.

First, the idea – Samuelson’s, not necessarily Owen’s – that the idea of comparative advantage is the only idea in the social sciences that is both true and non-trivial. Twaddle. I see your comparative advantage and raise it with the prisoners’ dilemma; the idea that two people might not cooperate even if it is in their best interests to do so. Put differently, the pursuit of individual interests┬ácan lead to socially sub-optimal outcomes. And, if prisoners’ dilemma doesn’t trump comparative advantage, I’ve got the tragedy of the commons up my sleeve too. True, and in a world of shared resources that don’t match up with property rights or sovereignties, certainly not trivial.

Second, the rhetorical question – posed in relation to donor division of labour exercises – about which donors want to leave the room/sector/country. I’m only a tiny bit of a donor, but I do and am. On Thursday. To be replaced by an Ethiopian who has a better understanding of the politics of Ethiopia than I will ever have. Not quite the room-leaving-manoeuvre that Owen would like, but in my view the sort of room-leaving-manoeuvre that is at least as important for making aid more effective.

I wonder whether the DAG’s reflection included consideration of the relationship between politics and aid effectiveness, and the need for donors to better understand the politics, or perhaps the political landscape for donors in Ethiopia is considered so problematic that this sort of discussion is best avoided?

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