Impressions of North America’s aid and development scene: the good, the bad and the ugly

May 13, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Just got back from a two week immersion in the US & Canada aid and development scene (well, the East Coast version, anyway). Boston, New York,groundhog-day640_s640x427Washington and Ottawa, talking at universities, NGOs, multilaterals and aid agencies and experiencing a wonk version of groundhog day + powerpoint, brought on by giving the same presentation 16 times (I’m getting pretty good at it now).

Overall impressions?  Lots of really smart and committed people caught between what Oxfam America’s Greg Adams calls the ‘high and low politics’ of aid. High politics is about policy – thoughtful discussions of how to make aid better; low politics is fending off the ‘aid doesn’t work/charity begins at home’ counter attack from right wingers and fiscal conservatives.

In Canada, it felt like low politics is in the ascendant – the aid community seems besieged as the government takes the axe to a number of institutions, including ‘merging’ CIDA with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (feels more like an acquisition than a merger).

The US felt more finely balanced – lots of good reform proposals coming from the Administration, and a really interesting discussion with USAID on how to move from funding relationships to partnerships like its triangular relationship with Brazil, where USAID and Brazil jointly support aid programmes in Lusophone Africa. They’re wondering how to expand that approach as more middle income countries set up their own aid agencies.

For all my admiration for their blogging, I found my day or so at the World Bank pretty depressing in terms of politics and policy. The Bank seems stuck in a ‘technology + private sector = solution to everything’ mindset. I’m not against either, but you have to take politics, power, institutions etc at least as seriously.

A Band for the Bank?

A Band for the Bank?

I’ve already covered my exchange with Marcelo Giugnale. At my staff talk, Bank uberblogger Shanta Devarajan stated ‘poverty is a series of government failures’ and came out with examples where ‘governments intervene, but make people worse off.’ Unfortunately his conclusion seemed not to be that the Bank should help strengthen states, but that it should bypass governments/find private sector solutions to everything. An approach that is unlikely to reduce inequality and has little historical foundation, I fear.

As for the evidence debate, Shanta reckoned ‘results always have to be relative to a counterfactual – that’s what they’re about’. So how do you assess things with no counterfactual, like the fall of apartheid, or the invasion of Afghanistan? Or the impact of international conventions on the rights of women?

[update: Shanta says I got him all wrong – see his comment below]

Meanwhile a discussion with the team producing the forthcoming World Development Report on Managing Risk suggested that the Bank still cannot get past its traditional technocratic approach of ‘if a state wants to improve, here are some suggestions’. On fragile states, what if a state isn’t interested in solutions? Reply – private sector + foreign investment. Oh dear. No theory of change for how fragile states turn around, finding nuclei of good governance in otherwise fragile states, building coalitions of civil society, faith-based institutions, media, academia, traditional authorities, shifting norms in the next generation. Nope, just a fairly barren state v private sector dichotomy. Still, these were rushed conversations, and I’d be delighted to be proved wrong.

Other impressions? Great intellectual capacity at the UN, frustrated by the lack of clarity and political constraints of the system. A professor who still remembers her first class with Robert Chambers. Robert had pinned up a map of the world, with the North at the bottom. Then he just sat in a corner as his new students filed in and commented that he’d put the map up upside down. You can imagine the rest. Genius.

And a great suggestion from someone (sorry can’t remember who) – a ‘voices of the activists’ study on lightbulb moments: what were the life-changingUpsidedown Map Of The World--Optimized experiences that set you on your present course – a meeting with an individual? A personal experience of violence or injustice? A seminar (hey, it happens)? Something you read? That is research I would love to read.

Dogs that didn’t bark? Surprisingly little discussion on the rise of China, depressingly little on climate change. Otherwise, my over-riding impression of the trip is the network of smart, committed people who read this blog, comment, think and argue with passion. Thankyou – you have definitely renewed my commitment to keeping this forum going, even though it can be daunting when (as this morning) I wake up jetlagged, with nothing ready to post. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

Update: here’s the video of one version (at Oxfam America) of my ‘what’s hot and what’s not: new thinking in development’ presentation.

May 13, 2013
Duncan Green