What Kind of Aid is the Best Kind of Aid?

There was a series of three articles recently on cash versus programme aid in Papua New Guinea. The essence of the articles was to discuss which form of capacity building assistance is better – through advisors or through budget support. Obviously, we all have our own opinions on this topic, and it has been written about frequently on this site (see here, here and here). However, some of the main themes of development effectiveness are ‘ownership’ and ‘on-budget’ programming, so the issues raised in the PNG case are due our consideration.

First, you have the issue of capacity building programmes for the government being run in parallel to the government’s own development programmes. Second, there is a marked overreliance on external advice in a country of some eight million people. Third, advisors seconded to government do not report to government. Claims that external advisors do not act in the best interests of the country surely have some grounds to them, however we should always guard against the assumption that national advisors will by default lack self-interest in the advice they give.

One of the challenges to capacity building in an aid context is that we, as aid practitioners, can easily forget that as capacity is built through programme aid, the aid itself should slowly transition to more budgetary support over time, to eventually rely exclusively on national capacity for implementation. As noted in the first series of articles on PNG here, “It would also be unwise and unreasonable to expect Australia to transfer funds into GoPNG procurement and distribution systems without improving the governance frameworks around them.” However, if after decades of assistance those procurement and delivery systems are not up to scratch to handle the bulk of aid through budgetary support, one must question the effectiveness of the external programme aid to begin with.

This leads us to another question: does an overreliance or preference of the donor on programme aid lead to a dependency scenario in the recipient country? While quantitative evidence is not readily available, the second article in the PNG series highlights a speech on 30 July 2015, by the Prime Minister of PNG, Peter O’Neill, in which he told Parliament that the engagement of advisers has led to two things, among which the following is critical: “[it] is making our nationals quite lazy. They are not able to take ownership of decisions and are over dependent on consultants and advisers.” Setting the question of laziness aside (that is particularly context and personnel specific) he makes an important point about ownership. Decisions taken by government are not organic to the government system. We’ll discuss ownership in a broader context next week, but given the slowness with which governance capacity improves in PNG, ownership and commitment to the process of capacity development by the government in light of the significant resources channelled to the country for that express purpose (mostly through parallel programme aid) would seem to be weak. Without knowing the particulars or individual advisors involved, one questions the appropriateness of the advice being given – advice based on Westminster-styled governance to a country largely influenced by traditional indigenous decision making. In the third article in the series, the authors have suggested that if external advisors were to be directly employed by the national government, issues of ownership and putting the country first would be resolved (or mostly resolved). But would it? Advice given is based on experience gained. And unless entire careers, or a large portion of them, have been developed in a given country it is difficult to hold that full ‘loyalty’ (for lack of a better term) and a comprehensive understanding of context can be ensured.

There will never be a ‘perfect’ kind of aid. Reservations of full budget support or of external programme interventions will always abound. What mix is best? Who can say? However, what must not be lost is the fact that whatever the aid, it should lead overtime (and not languish) towards the transition of a country from aid-dependency to autonomy and increased resilience. At some point donors and government must move away from external capacity interventions to rely on national capacities and resources. Bumps in the road are certain – there are no perfect roads in government as in life. Occasional assistance may be needed. But like people, governments can and do mature and take control of their destinies.

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