From the CAPE conference to Nairobi: progressing the development effectiveness agenda

27 Oct 16

It seems that the development effectiveness agenda lacks clarity and focus. Here are three principles that might help

Last week, Publish What You Fund was at a conference on ‘development effectiveness’ organised by the Overseas Development Institute. The presentations and discussion were very interesting, but it was clear there has been little progress on this agenda since the Busan Declaration in 2011. Development effectiveness isn’t dead yet, but it’s on life support.

So is it time to turn off the life support machine, and go work on something else? I would say no: there are 800 million people in the world living in extreme poverty, and many more affected by war and natural disasters, so effective development is clearly needed. I would argue that many of the principles underpinning the Paris Declaration of 2005 and the Busan Partnership of 2011, like country ownership and transparency, remain relevant in the era of the Sustainable Development Goals. Instead, I have three suggestions to revitalise the effectiveness agenda: (1) base it on principles, not prescriptions; (2) get political and (3) accept a realistic role for the private sector.

Suggestion one is to treat the Busan principles as principles, not prescriptions. For instance, country ownership does not necessarily mean a five-year development plan. Ebola wasn’t in anyone’s five-year plan but country ownership was key to defeating it. This is consistent with ‘Doing Development Differently’, a movement towards more flexible, adaptive programming. There may be a case for editing the principles, too: the evidence presented suggested that governments see little value in donors ‘harmonising’ their activities in country, but a lot of value in moving faster in decision-making and disbursement, which isn’t currently mentioned.

My second suggestion (and one frequently made in this field) is that it’s time to get political. This doesn’t mean that donors should play politics, but they need to understand it. There was an interesting discussion in the conference on how to reconcile the “leave no-one behind” mantra of the Sustainable Development Goals with country ownership. That is not a problem donors can solve. Donors can’t tell, say, Kenya to provide universal healthcare anymore than they could tell the United States; only Kenyan citizens can do that.

The third is that it’s time to be realistic about the role the private sector can play. The debate is a bit polarised here: naïve rhetoric on “billions to trillions” on one hand; a kneejerk suspicion of the private sector on the other. The truth is there are many kinds of private sector player and different ones are needed for different problems. Public-private partnerships might work for toll roads but not for hospitals. Zambia can borrow on the capital markets but Sierra Leone can’t. Liberia has invited private school chains to run some public schools: let’s see what the evidence says before rushing to judgement. This is a field where we need more data and evidence, because markets works best when information flows freely.

Finally, I’m struck at the lack of consensus on what the GPEDC Nairobi meeting is for, or even what people want to achieve there. The lesson of the past decade in development policy is that if you want something, you need to state it clearly and then organise, organise, organise. Think of “drop the debt” or “make aid transparent”: just three words but we made the case and made it happen. Developing country governments made it clear in Paris in 2005 that they wanted to set their own agenda, and to an extent, they succeeded: the rise of China and low interest rates gives them more choice over finance. I don’t see such a clear agenda this time around, from anyone.  We’re looking forward to continuing the conversation with colleagues during and leading up to the Nairobi meeting.

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