Development 3.0: Disempowering donors?

What role should donors play in helping to improve governance and domestic accountability in developing countries? My starting point in addressing this issue is that accountability in developing countries – as elsewhere – is very important for reasons of effectiveness/learning and fairness/justice and that donors, while recognising that domestic politics is the key driver of governance and accountability, ought to do what they can to support the strengthening of domestic accountability. However, some serious questions need to be asked about the “what they can” in that sentence.

Donors need to think carefully about their role in promoting governance and domestic accountability for at least four sets of related reasons.

  • 1) Track record: Donors don’t have a great track record of helping to strengthen domestic accountability in developing countries.
  • 2) Knowledge: Donors’ knowledge about how to strengthen domestic accountability is patchy.
  • 3) Context: Donors don’t understand the contexts in which they work very well, with the informal dimensions of politics/society/culture a particular challenge (the spread of political economy analysis has helped a bit, but the fact remains that it’s not easy for expats on short postings to really get to grips with what’s going on)
  • 4) Blueprints: Donors have a tendency to apply blueprints based on what they regard as “best practice” rather than helping to nurture institutions that are well-suited to the local context. See Brian Levy’s recent blog on “beginning with things as they actually are”

[You will note that issues of legitimacy/sovereignty don’t appear in that list. Those issues are clearly important – and I am firmly of the view that country ownership matters a lot and that donors can hinder rather than help with the emergence of country ownership – but at the end of the day I think that the responsibility to help to lift people out of poverty transcends borders.]

Those 4 sets of reasons – bad track record, patchy knowledge, failure to understand context, preference for blueprints – are pretty big. So, what role does that leave for donors? Should they pack up and go home? Or, beat a well-ordered retreat to the rather uninspiring land of “do no harm”?

Anyway, with these questions in my head for the last several months , I read Owen Barder’s blog on development 3.0 with great interest. Development 3.0 – a term coined by the World Bank’s Chief Economist for Africa – is about bringing together the power of citizens with the power of new technologies (mobile phones, GPS, crowd-sourcing etc.) in a new super-charged version of social accountability with people empowered to take greater control of their own development. In this version of development enhanced transparency and accountability fixes the broken feedback loops, facilitating learning and enabling local solutions to development challenges to emerge or evolve. Such an approach would, it seems to me, address some of the problems with donors’ traditional approach to enhancing governance and accountability.

  • 1) Track record: it’s a different approach
  • 2) Patchy knowledge: it doesn’t prioritise or depend upon donor knowledge about what works
  • 3) Limited ability to really understand country context: it doesn’t require donors to engage in the same way with the complexities of country context.
  • 4) Preference for blueprints: it’s not about saying how things should be

Owen concludes in a great piece on what development policy can learn from evolution that “as would-be change-makers, we should not try to design a better world: we should concentrate on building better feedback loops.” I think that’s spot on. But working out what role donors and other external actors can play in development 3.0 remains a work in progress and –  at a time when the demands of domestic accountability in donor countries are pushing for better evidence about results and value for money – adapting to such an approach will be a challenge for donors.

Watch this space.

NB: This blog is written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of DFID.

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