Not longer, but deeper commitments for more aid predictability

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that one of the major problems in development is the unpredictability of aid. It is taken on face value that this can be reached by introducing long-term commitments, 3-4 years, and preferably beyond. It seems to me this is the wrong approach. Deepening commitments would lead to more predictability. If badly done, long-term commitments could lead to even less predictability.

Lessons from Egypt
William Easterly wrote a nice summary on why autocrats eventually fail to adapt to changing circumstances. They can deliver immobility which is often misread for stability. It is not: with the end of the reign comes inevitably the disruption and chaos: the necessary changes are too important to implement through mere evolution. Dinosaurs don’t evolve into mammals, they are too far gone on a path that was right under different conditions in another era. Long term immobility is not always good for development. Long term predictability should rather be an engagement than a cast in stone approach.

Lessons from the UK budget discussions.
The UK-civil servants don’t get nervous because the government’s budget is annual. This is strange: their salaries are approved annually by something unpredictable as a MP. Their whole livelihood depends on it, they have no plan B, and they don’t panic.

This is because most of the budget (perhaps something like 85 %, I made the numbers up, don’t quote me on them, you get the picture) is based on a sturdy consensus in the society, beyond parties. Another 10 % is deeply entrenched with the current majority. This leaves only 5 % discretionary spending. Those are the nervous people, mostly on a short term contract.

Typically, in the donor development budget, over a legislature, apart from the “assessed” or negotiated contributions to the World Bank, the EU and the UN, nearly everything is discretionary. Longer-term programmes are as discretionary as the short-term ones. Only a wide consensus on the development budget would move it away from this haphazard spending.

The European Commission creates their policy in such a participatory way. They bring on board input from assessments and evaluations, the 27 governments, the civil society and parliament, before proposing a way forward. And after only two years there is a mid-term review. A programme based on such a wide consensus has more chance to be predictable and long-term than a programme built on the wish of a single politician. Such a broad based program can be predictable, even if all the engagements coming from it are short term.

Stop-start development
With a longer term commitment to a country, near the end of the commitment period, a thorough assessment will take place.
Firstly the donor will asses whether they want to stay engaged in the country. The results of the current programme will inform this donor decision, together with factors beyond the country (herd thinking among donors, new themes coming up, other countries become a donor darling, etc. ).
Secondly there must be decided whether the sectors and regions of engagement will stay the same, and thirdly whether they will do the same things in the same way within the sectors.
The result is, from the viewpoint of the recipient in a specific intervention, mostly a lottery. The success or failure of the programme itself will play only a limited role in the decision whether to drop it.
The process can be compared to the end of a regime. It is often preferred to start from a blank slate than to build on what was done earlier.

The cost of continuity and the cost of disruption
For the poor in the third world, continuity is central to development results. Startup costs are notoriously high, there is a learning curve, and development results must not only be obtained, but also made permanent and institutionalised.
The political economy on the donor side is not in line with the needs of the poor. The political benefit of development results is notoriously low for the donor, while the political benefit from aid announcements is high.
As donors are spread thinly over a multitude of sectors, political visibility is obtained by announcing reforms and new programmes, not by pledging continuity of engagement, nor by highlighting results.

Unacceptable reporting requirements
Long-term commitments span 3 to 4 years. This means they sit astride on 2 donor legislatures, and 2 postings of donor officials. Donor reporting “should be” limited, as this leads to “too much transaction costs” (how much does it really cost to forward an internal report? Or even, to publish it on the Internet?). This means that in a 3 year program, the first report that arrives at the donors’ desk arrives after 15 months, and is not acted upon before the project is half way. As international agreements go, they are executed without too much questioning: the cost of concluding them was too high. Abandoning an agreement is not good. As development is innovative, this means that normally the project will not be reassessed and rewired for success after 6 months of failure. The project will only be reported on after 1.5 years, and will probably continue for the last 1.5 years after the first annual report was received as it is too late to save the project anyway. Depth of commitment means close monitoring, in order to understand and allow change as it is necessary.

The evolving consensus: don’t become a dinosaur.
A short feedback loop for the donor would help him to steer its commitments towards his “comfort zone”. The areas of division of labour where the donor finds an internal consensus that they are committed. Annually, the choices in who does what, where, could be reviewed and fine tuned. Evaluations should inform this process at every turn, but also the opinions of the opposition. Rolling programmes become the norm.

After some evolution, the programmes should stabilize around some areas of commitment, where this donor can act predictably. Other areas, where this donor cannot reach this consensus, should probably be left to other actors who can. Like in Humanitarian Assistance, where the Central Emergency Response Fund has the role of rapid response and gap-filling where there are unaddressed needs, the World Bank and other development partners could play this role in development.

In search of a deeper commitment: identities count.
Long term predictability can only exist if the donor country builds a deep internal consensus on what, where and how needs to be done by whom. This commitment must go beyond principles, as it is possible to do wildly different things from year to year within the same principles. It probably must be hands on. The example of the Dutch in a former era comes to mind. They used to be the one stop shop for engagement, expertise and funding on everything water.
Depth of engagement is not synonymous for micro-management. As donors stop spreading themselves thinly, they will understand better the need for local ownership for getting results. Donor support should evolve from the evil stepmother, nagging the partner at every step, to the fairy godmother, empowering the partner to accomplish what they long for, and live happily ever after.

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