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Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Back to the future (2006): why too much aid harmonization might not be a good thing

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Back in early 2006 I wrote a short thought piece on aid effectiveness to stimulate internal discussion as I was beginning a new role combining work on aid effectiveness and knowledge management.

To acknowledge the Busan High Level Forum on aid effectiveness which is taking place this week, I thought I’d re-share this piece, even though I’m no longer directly working on the issues being discussed. I’ve left the document as is, apart from removing some internal references that might not make sense to an external audience. It’s surprising to me that in some ways the discussions today are very similar to the ones taking place back then, and most if the issue raised still seem relevant to me.

The paper does miss a few issues which are hot now, but which were not so much on our minds back then such as aid transparency, the role of technology and how emerging donors fit within the aid architecture. My views have also probably evolved somewhat with the benefit of experience and hindsight. That said I’d be interested to hear what you all think of the paper in today’s context. Here is is:

One size does not fit all – Why too much aid harmonization might be a bad thing – April 2006

Abstract:  The current push towards greater harmonization of  aid programmes both within the UN and by the development community as a whole has the potential to bring dividends in terms of greater coherence and efficiency in the delivery of aid. At the same time there is also a risk that too much harmonization will dampen innovation, reduce flexibility, and might result in everyone pursuing a single flawed plan. This article explores some of the risks of aid harmonization in more detail and suggests some ways in which they might be mitigated.

Reform and harmonization of development aid, together with a big push for additional resources is the current recipe being advanced for us to finally achieve the long elusive goal of eradicating global poverty. The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, signed in 2005, launched an ambitious agenda which includes an emphasis on national ownership and national development plans and national execution. For donors there is an alignment of programme cycles, targets, monitoring, and aid conditionalities.

It was signed on to by a wide range of donor and recipient governments as well as the UN, IFIs and a number of NGOs, Foundations and Global funds. The UN Development Group is participating in this effort, and in addition is currently defining its own strategy for greater harmonization within the UN including a more simplified and integrated approach to country programming, linked to national development plans as well as a move to joint offices.

Although a multitude of international targets, goals and commitments have been created by various global summits and conferences – a common set of goals has emerged as the global reference point for development – the MDGs. At national level National Development plans which are also Poverty Reduction Strategies are centre stage, and are for the most part, closely linked to global goals.

There are a number of potentially significant benefits of the current harmonization efforts (which is why they are being  pursued so strongly). These include:

  • Common mutually agreed aims and targets to which everyone contributes – we all know where we are headed, and we are all working to achieve the same thing.
  • Common plan  based on a common assessment and analysis of the needs (which is hopefully evidence based!).
  • International assistance is linked to national plans and therefore local needs rather than donor priorities.
  • Co-ordination efforts reduce programme overlaps and inconsistencies between approaches, aims and cycles of different agencies. This reduces wasteful duplication, and helps generate information sharing and programmatic synergy between the different aid actors.
  • Common institutional assessment, reporting and accounting requirements for budget support and national execution reduces reporting and accounting burdens on recipient governments.

But, there are some significant risks involved in harmonizing too tightly around all aspects of the development process. To paraphrase William Easterly, the aid business is the only area where we still have faith in central planning, long after it has been discredited as an approach by the end of the cold war, and despite little evidence to show it has fared better in development work. This might be overly harsh but there are always dangers of putting too many eggs (or funds) in one basket. So why exactly might overly harmonized planning not work?

Here are a few reasons:

  1. Too many meetings: First of all, on a practical level the co-ordination of all the various development actors including the UN, bilateral donors, IFIs, NGOs, government and civil society creates an enormous burden of co-ordination work. There is clearly a trade-off between time spent on co-ordination and time spent on implementation. Getting the right balance is tricky and current efforts might be tipping the balance unfavourably.
  2. The dangers of group think: Bringing a large group of development partners together with different capacities and agendas to agree a common plan is always going to produce an imperfect result. Often the loudest, most eloquent or best financed voices exert the greatest influence. There is pressure to reach consensus on issues when in reality none exists for the sake of reaching an agreement. Pressure to reach agreement risks producing lowest common denominator compromises that in fact satisfy no-one. Some key voices and issues may well go missing – especially those concerning the poor, the marginalized and the young.
  3. Repeating the same mistakes over and over: Assume you have one plan, based on one analysis. What happens if the analysis is flawed in some critical way? (Not impossible given the complex problems to be addressed and in many cases the uncertainties or even lack of data and research about them). Then everyone is following the same flawed plan. The plans will either be all in the right direction, or more likely all in the wrong direction. And the resulting development effort will be universally bad.
  4. Think local, act local: Some problems are simply better resolved with a bottom up approach by people finding their own ways of addressing the problems they face, in their own context. External models and expertise, and centrally mandated solutions cannot always be successfully applied to a situation. Local context is crucial, as is innovation and flexibility – things that work better at a smaller scale than at a larger one.
  5. Government “good”, government “bad”: an unintended consequence of having a common accountability framework for national execution is that either everyone is “in” channeling funds through government, or everyone is “out” when corruption, human rights issues or other weaknesses are detected. In practice this makes the funding of budget support highly volatile as money is either abundant or non-existent – hardly an environment that helps strengthen institutions. At the same time corruption may be harder to identify as a government entity only has to ace a single assessment tool.
  6. Slow to change: any plan that needs to be negotiated with myriad of local and international partners, and needs to find consensus will not easily be able to adapt to changes in the situation, whether they be emerging crises or new opportunities.

Despite this doom and gloom, I don’t believe all is lost. There are great potential gains from harmonization, but a few precautions are needed to mitigate some of the risks. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Common plans should not be too prescriptive. It might be good to agree on a common set of high level goals, but not on highly detailed objectives or on specifications of how they should be pursued. Detailed planning should be transparent but is best left to those closer to the implementation.
  2. Open communication and sharing of ideas within the country and between countries should be promoted – even if this is not directly in support of the plan. It’s useful to provide a platform and to create opportunities for sharing of development knowledge – but this sharing needs to be organic, based on the needs and interests of those who participate – not centrally controlled to serve the plan.
  3. We need to constantly ask, through research and evaluation, whether the plan is really working, what aspects work and which don’t and why. Preferably some of this evaluation is done by people who are independent of those who are carrying out the plan. And, of course, there needs to be a mechanism to ensure that what is learned is fed back into the decision-making process.
  4. Feedback should be sought from beneficiaries and development actors on a continual basis in the design and execution of the plans – for accountability and transparency but also to get as complete a picture as possible of the situation on the ground. This feedback needs to encourage, not silence dissenting views, in order to continually challenge the assumptions of the plan, and to explicitly acknowledge diverse viewpoints where there is no consensus.
  5. Plans need to have flexibility built into them to allow for the incorporation of new research, changes in the situation, or even changes in the availability of resources.
  6. There needs to be some space for grassroots initiatives to emerge. Ideally this would involve setting up a regulatory and financing system that allows natural solutions to evolve, and funds promising new ideas, even if they weren’t in the original plan.
  7. Some development actors should stay out of the central planning loop. It’s good if there are a few NGOs, private sector organizations or others that are not following the same plan as everyone else. They can help naturally fill gaps that were missed in the plan and they can innovate and take risks and thus help alternative views and models to emerge (if they have merit they can then be co-opted by the plan). Some outside critical views also help improve accountability.

What role can the UN play in these discussions? I think we can do a few practical things such as ensuring our own programming is evidence-based, is flexible and includes an element of experimentation with new approaches, is evaluated and allows for course correction. Another must-do is to ensure that the key issues get sufficient attention in discussions around the design and implementation of the national development plan – here it’s important not only for us to have a voice, but also that we ensure that civil society, and most importantly families and communities have an input into the process. In addition to this we need to work with civil society to empower them to be a critical “outside” voice that calls government and donors to account for progress made or not made.

In practice though, aid harmonization is proving more difficult to implement than anticipated. Given the diverse interests of the various development actors, it’s unlikely that all development actors in a country will be able to agree to follow a common set of goals, plans and methods any time soon!


(P.S. It goes without saying that i) this is only my own writing and does not in any way represent the views of the UN ii) it was written back in 2006 in a different time when I was in a different role.)


Written by Ian Thorpe

November 29, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Posted in smartaid

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