Development Assistance in an Unfair World

For all the talk about the global push to ‘leave no one behind’ following the adoption of the SDGs, or Global Goals, world governments, particularly LDCs and middle income countries, face an uphill battle. While official development assistance, particularly from OECD countries, goes up by dollar amounts, by percentage of GDP, it is slipping. To make matters worse, money is being redirected towards the ever escalating migrant crisis in Europe. So LDCs are seeing an absolute decrease in development finance, while MICs must also grapple with the fact that the development assistance they receive is based on average GDPs despite the fact that these countries often have large pockets of poor and vulnerable communities or regions that they cannot adequately deal with using their own resources. It is famously referred to as the ‘curse of the MIC’.

The challenge is thus: for many donors who are feeling stretched in terms of priorities (caring for a large influx of refugees and migrants, humanitarian assistance to communities in conflict and drought-stricken areas, and regular development assistance programmes) they need to start weighing priorities against each other. Sometimes short term needs outweigh longer-term investment (for example, redirecting development funds to humanitarian crises). At other times, the focus is on risk versus opportunity (investing development dollars in LDCs with weak governance systems is more risky than investing in private sector development in MICs, for example). For more on this, see here.

From the donor perspective, when you are trying to sustain funding to issues you have prioritised but when the money is stretched and getting thinner by the year, you choose low risk investments, such as investment in countries with stronger institutions, and feel-good projects which receive positive media attention, such as housing for refugees and drought relief in Africa. From the recipient perspective, the question becomes one of a struggle to redefine what development assistance now means to your country. For MICs, it is a question of understanding the types of investments donors will now make (surely not grants to poor communities – that’s on you now), and thus where government’s own resources can best be leveraged to address income and poverty gaps across the country. For LDCs, it becomes a question of identifying areas which have forced donor countries to categorize you as a high risk, and then prioritize those areas for rapid improvement. This will have to be coupled with a refocus on community-based development using traditional knowledge and available resources. This is a move away from traditional donor dependence for things like budget support for health care and education, but very likely necessary.

So the challenge is thus: how do we reimagine development assistance in an increasingly short-term and humanitarian-driven environment? We cannot wish away the current crises that have become all-consuming, nor can we naively assume that donors will simply reprioritize the particularly fragile LDCs and MICs which are often the root of these crises to head off future refugees flows and conflict before they are unmanageable.

Frankly, development assistance is what it is these days – loans and private investment. Indeed, there are still the capacity building and service delivery programmes, but they do not play the same role in donor development assistance strategies. Commitments to the idea of sustainable development and leaving no one behind lie formally parked in documents such as the SDGs and it is becoming increasingly obvious that donor countries will take less responsibility for actually making that happen beyond meeting their financing obligations (sort of. Few OECD countries have actually achieved the ODA target of 0.07% of own GDP).

Where does this leave us? First, as mentioned above, LDCs and MICs will now be faced with a reverse-aid dependency scenario. While we have all railed against aid dependency as the downfall of development, I doubt anyone imagined such a rapid and somewhat enforced reversing of the trend. Second, it leaves a lot of countries, particularly MICs, with unfinished business. Stock-talking of MDG achievements demonstrate significant progress in some areas and less in others from a national perspective, while quality data on subnational trends is less clear.

So what can we do about this? It is no use waiting for donors to revert to development assistance practices of the early 00’s. It just won’t happen – at least for a decade. Better for LDCs and MICs to do a stock-taking of their own. First, what do they have – policies, capacities, and capital investments that they can leverage to continue to move forward towards sustainable development, although at a slower pace. Second, for the loans and private investment that is coming in, where are the holes that need to be plugged? What are the priority areas for this type of assistance? How does it leverage the existing capacities that can be built upon? Third, how can governments and communities begin to capitalize on their own resources such as human capital, traditional knowledge and practice, to increase resilience in the face of shocks such as conflict (and reducing conflict potential), food and water crises, and natural disaster. Increases in resilience will help to combat losing the ground that has been gained in areas such as health care, education and sustainable livelihoods.

These are not perfect answers, simply a bit of brainstorming as we come to the realization that the SDGs were developed with traditional donor assistance in mind. With the rapid escalation of crises and insecurity in many parts of the world, development assistance has needed to be redirected simply to keep people alive in the short term. Thus, development outcomes and the SDGs (as well as the commitments made in the Paris Agreement on climate change) will increasingly become the responsibility of even the most vulnerable and poor countries using whatever limited resources they have. The world’s governments committed to leaving ‘no one behind’ when they agreed to the SDGs. They will have to do it while simultaneously re imagining how development assistance will contribute.

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