I often experience a ‘disappointment cycle’ when reading papers on aid and development. The initial question/framing gets me excited – this is really going to tell me something new/interesting. But then the paper peters out, reverting to standard prescriptions and vague generalizations.
That certainly was my feeling with the new paper from Chatham House and New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Aid strategies in ‘politically estranged’ settings: How donors can stay and deliver in fragile and conflict-affected states got my attention first because of ‘politically estranged’:
‘more than 49 per cent of people in countries on the World Bank’s list of fragile and conflict-affected states (FCS) now live in situations where relations between national authorities and major donors are ‘politically estranged’.
Estranged situations are those where: (i) ruling authorities have taken power by extra-constitutional means; (ii) states are under comprehensive sanctions; (iii) societies are in transition back to a constitutional order; or (iv) elections are internationally disputed.
This is really interesting – so much of aid, especially that of bilateral and multilateral donors (who provide the vast bulk of the cash) rests on relationships between donors and national/subnational governments. What do you do when those relationships break down?
One option is for donors to walk away, but the paper argues that ‘There are sound national interest, geopolitical, collective security and ethical reasons for donors to stay engaged in estranged settings. While development aid by itself cannot prevent conflict or instability, its suspension can exacerbate fragility. Suspension of aid can deepen suffering, prompt further displacement of people and strain humanitarian instruments already responding to more than 340 million people in need worldwide. Withdrawal erodes societal capacities and institutions, increases the risk of negative spillovers, especially to neighbouring countries and regions, and can intensify geopolitical competition.’
The paper argues that political estrangement hacks away at some of the basic plumbing of the aid relationship: accountability breaks down when states don’t play ball; lack of information makes efforts at inclusion (e.g. of minority groups) very hard to monitor; the infrastructure for delivering basic services may not exist – try delivering humanitarian aid when there is no functioning system for currency exchange. Finally, these contexts are often chaotic – constant adaptation is required, which is not exactly the aid industry’s strong point.
It then promises that ‘a range of options exists for donors to remain engaged without ignoring the sources of estrangement’. But this is the point at which my disappointment set in. The ‘so whats’ for donors are:
‘collaboration across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus to:
— Build and maintain domestic support (i.e. in donor countries) for engagement;
— Establish and communicate clear expectations with national actors – i.e. sanctioned authorities and civil society and community groups;
— Design delivery modalities and oversight mechanisms that channel aid effectively; and
— Adapt programming rapidly to circumstances.’
That all sounds far too close to business as usual, something born out by the resulting ‘Menu of Options’ (below).
Take the toughest quadrant – high risk and low willingness to engage. The recommendations are shove more money through NGOs and direct to communities, zoom out to regional dialogues to try and get some traction on reluctant governments and start paying nurses and teachers directly.
What’s missing from this? How about
1. Seeking pockets of effectiveness and non-estrangement, e.g. particular ministries or subnational governments that are working OK and keen to engage with donors? Manchester University’s ESID programme did some great work on this (see link) and it seems a genuine option where national relations are ‘estranged’
2. Identifying ‘public authorities’ like faith organizations or traditional leaders, who enjoy legitimacy and scale, sometimes more so than national governments? This seems more promising than just defaulting to NGOs, as the paper suggests, given how small and peripheral such organizations often are.
3. Supporting individuals, rather than projects, through expanded scholarship schemes (aka cash transfers for current and future leaders)?
4. Or even my old favourite, positive deviance – find out where the existing system has thrown up some successful/less unsuccessful efforts to provide basic services or accountability (without aid necessarily playing a role) and see what lessons or practices could be helped to spread?
I’d be interested in other suggestions, because what’s in this paper seems far too conservative. If I’ve been unfair on the authors, they should feel free to weigh in in comments. Important caveat – I only read the 16 page policy brief, not the full 86 page paper, but if there are some gems in the paper that don’t make it into the brief, that’s an even more serious crime, IMO.