Busan Aid Effectiveness, Power Impact Analysis and the Rights Based Approach

The use of big words and capitals in capitals

I just used a title where most of the words seem to call for capitalization. It just shows how the development bingo is still in full swing, and we take ourselves so seriously. It is also typical of the kind of message coming from the centralised decision making processes. In development speak: from capital.

Busan has transformed from a city in Korea known from crossword puzzles to a development milestone. I lump this milestone to the latest trend: just like in the sixties we talk about power relations again, power in the sense it was analysed in the Marxist political thinking. Only now this analysis is called political science. The Rights Based Approach is where the empowerment thinking has been hiding while the OECD-led government ownership approach has been running the donor capitals.

Busan Power Impact Analysis

The main gist of Busan is the strengthened “country ownership”. This is good right? It depends of how you see the world. Do you think that countries are people too? Countries don’t have ownership, people in countries have. Who exactly in the development countries and in the donor agencies get more power?

When looking at the Busan outcome document with the instruments offered by the Dictators’ Handbook, we see a document that strengthens the power of the undersigning parties. The reinforcement of the central power, in practice, the president or the minister of finance of the recipient government, is the overarching theme of the outcome document. Now power relations are seldom win-win. More central power means automatically less power for the “others”. From the Handbook (another capitalization) we know that for the Dictator this power allocation is crucial and deliberate. We know also that every leader is a frustrated potential Dictator. This transfer of power to the central recipient’s government seems very risky from the donors’ side if development is the goal and not just international relations. Using the tools from the Handbook, and for the sake of simplicity, it seems like the right thing to conclude that we can use “country ownership” and “wishes of the president” interchangeably.

The Handbook explicitly warns for putting individuals in “gatekeeper” positions, where they can keep everybody else hostage to their designs. Busan promotes this practice and calls it country ownership, while in fact it strengthenes the powers that be, not “we the people”. In a democratic country, this is not a problem, as there are checks and balances. But where exactly the lack of democracy is the problem (as is underlined in the rest of the outcome text), this principle can be expected to block every democratization effort.

Now why would the donors do this? Different hypothesis can be construed and accepted or rejected using the Handbook’s tools:

  1. The objective of development assistance is not helping the poor but advancing the interests of the donor. Meaning of course in the first place good relations with the recipient country, trade advantages, and the odd joint public events and lip service to themes dear to the donor’s heart like gender and reproductive health. This reasoning is an example from the Handbook itself.
  2. Donors are just gullible, and really believe third world leaders are there only to help the poorest. As donor bureaucrats have their own politicians too, it seems not realistic that such ideas would get a lot of traction
  3. Donors think that the rest of the Busan document will manage to steer the leaders to better behaviour. This is a plausible explanation, and seems to be confirmed by the circus surrounding the Paris and Busan agenda.
  4. The Busan agenda, like the Paris agenda before, gives a few strong donors a central bagaining position  at the table, and authorizes small donors to be at the high table too to free ride on the tails of the bigo ones without more than a semblance of expertise. This seems a strong argument. The World Bank has a near monopoly of negotiations with the national governments on budget aid issues, with only DFID having some clout to match their capacity in some countries. Smaller donors can play with the big boys without really having much capacity for doing so. Everybody wins.

Arguments 1 and 4 seem convincing, while argument 2 is heavily used for the public sphere and argument 3 keeps the conscientious bureaucrats motivated at their job. Especially for them there is more to Busan than country ownership alone. However, from the Handbook, we know that every conditionality fails that is not enforced automatically. So it will not happen.

A set of additional principles (conditionalities by another name) will guide the actions and might balance the first principle: Focus on results, inclusive development practices, transparency and mutual accountability.

The results agenda has not been the panacea everybody hoped for.  While the MDGs have given a sense of direction, Paris nor Accra have been very useful to promote this agenda. Indeed, results are best measured on the lowest level, while Paris and Accra rather operate on the aggregate level. Measuring aggregate results is not easy. In most development agencies,  there is an important passive resistance against the “results craze”. Moreover there is a tendency of eliminating power elements from the equation. This could lead to a “sustainable poverty” approach: there are some basic MDG results, but not enough to lead to real empowerment of the poor or even of the middle class. Of course if evaluation is serious and integrated in the way things work, there will be a pressure for improvements. The track record is scary: donors in general hop from paradigm to paradigm, with scant attention to evaluations coming too late or leading to doing the wrong thing righter. More importantly, there is a also preference for political re-engineering instead of just correcting practices step by step, often in line with the electoral cycle at the World Bank or in the UK.

Inclusive partnerships are vague. They seem to fit the description of elections under Lenin in the Handbook: there is no real binding process, and it can be used to divide and rule an ragtag of stakeholders.  It authorizes the President, according to his wishes to set up the processes for participation that fits his purpose. Moreover, the “inclusive agenda” on its own is a more complicated concept than it seems. Does it mean that also the powerless, women, poor, minorities should be included? Or does it mean there should be a consensus approach where real challenges to the conventional wisdom (the wishes of the president) can be sidelined? Is there room for oppositional thinking, with genuine representation, or do we have unelected or self-elected groups vying for attention? The way the inclusive partnership approach works in real countries who have been receiving budget aid without having a multi-party democracy, like Rwanda and Uganda, can shed a light on this.

Transparency and accountability to each other is a fun principle. Transparency is nice and does not hurt anybody, but the added value of just publishing the data is limited. I would agree that it could be the basis for the work of different groups in the civil society to put pressure on the President.What works here of course is not the transparency in itself but the documented pressure.  Transparency could also be the basis for the President to know what everybody, including pesky civil rights groups are up to and are funded for. Mutual accountability is a strange concept. Money goes from the donor to the President. Accountability works the other way. As there is no power in the other equations (to the respective citizens, the intended beneficiaries, constituents and shareholders), we can ignore them. However, this principle introduces the “intended beneficiaries” which might be a weak basis for a rights based approach. The principle might also open the door for conditionality on the basis of some form of participation, but this will be very difficult to enforce, as there is no real definition of what accountability to the intended beneficiaries might mean. As we know, with Dictators, just like with children, it is important to be specific on what exactly is expected from them. And they rarely voluntarily part from power.

When moving thorough the rest of the document, all the right noises on democratic governance, anti-corruption, gender, evaluation,  and other issues are made. It also is rather detailed in its requests for data, monitoring and evaluations. At the same time, a strategic comprehensive and planned approach to development as a whole is promoted. In the reality of the field, these streams are rather exclusive: the iterative approach needed for a really inclusive and democratic process with good evaluations along the line, does not go well with comprehensive 5 year plans on a national level. The approach rather leads to what Aid on the Edge calls “ official views”. The different, and often mutually competitive goals and methods of work make the outcome document difficult to enforce and give a lot of room for politickering, except for the central part:

  1. Country ownership (meaning according to the wishes of the President)
  2. Through the promised transparency: full control on what happens by whom where.

Competing paradigms: Human rights based or country ownership based

The paradigm in UN-development activities is a human rights based approach, where rights are owned to individuals. This is why the MDG- approach becomes effective: you check whether any individual baby got its right to life, aggregate data, and check the result, count the children denied their right to schooling. The rights based approach respects country ownership, or rather country responsibility, but the development activities are aimed at the “one and indivisable” individual human rights. Each right has its own advocates fighting for this right, and its own budget for strengthening the advocacy. UNICEF for children’s rights, Oxfam for the right to food, UNHCHR for Human rights, ILO for labour rights, and so on. The wishes of the president are not above the rights of the individual.

The OECD approach is a government centered approach, with a centrally planned or coordinated working method, steered from Paris to Accra and further to Busan. In essence, it does not deal with “aid effectiveness”, although it uses the term, it only deals with streamlining procedures for government to government procedures. The wishes of the President are above the rights. It ignores the fact that, from the french revolution on, every advance in governance has happened by  wrestling power from the government, not by strengthening them. it is the accountability structure that strengthens institutions.

In this sense Busan is a “means oriented approach” although it uses the term “results based approach” throughout the text. The main question is: does Busan support the human rights based approach, which is essentially empowering, or does it work against it? Asking the question for every single intervention under Busan goes a long way to find the answer.

Finally, the Busan Outcome seems to be an effort by the major development players to force a global “official view” on the others that suits their interest. This view will compete with an innovative, evidence based approach to reaching the global “official goals”.


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