I have been attending a most inappropriately termed meeting in Accra: The 3rd High Level FORUM ON AID EFFECTIVENESS. It would have been more realistic to call it FORUM ON AID INEFFECTIVENESS. All the official reviews, evaluations and assessments, and there were plenty in supply at the 3 day meeting, admit that not enough progress is being made since the adoption of the PARIS DECLARATION ON AID EFFECTIVENESS in 2005. The target is to make aid more effective, both in quantity and quality, by 2010, only two years away.
The Paris Declaration was necessary to speed up the aid component of Goal No.8 issues in the MDGs. The goal itself envisages a three pronged strategy to reform the international development agenda to benefit the poor: improved quantity and quality of aid and debt relief, and reform of global trade. Aid is the soft touch in the troika. It is visible and brings instant gratification to both the aid pushers and the aid addicts. If there is little progress on aid, what chances do the world’s poor have on the other two issues, especially trade justice?
There was a lot of talk about local ownership, harmonisation, mutual accountability, managing with results, etc. But it seems that what these terms mean in practice depends on who is using them – whether you are a donor or a recipient. Even among NGOs and INGOs, there are differences depending on their donor-recipient status: there are donor INGOs and donor-driven local partnerships.
Everyone talks about accountability, but who is this accountability to? Despite many criticisms of NEPAD, two important concepts came as a result of it: the African Peer Review mechanism between African leaders, and mutual accountability on commitments between Africa and her development partners. These were adopted in 2000-2001, yet the same phrases dominate the aid effectiveness debate, as though they are new. African governments, bureaucrats and even our NGOs, continue to play reactive policy dialogues and jump from one global forum to another without linkages to issues that the AU, NEPAD and our sub-regional institutions may have already agreed upon. It raises the fundamental question: must we accept every invitation to dinner? Is it not possible to cut out the waste on time and resources devoted to these huge meetings where previous commitments are put on table to be recommitted by the same people?
In spite of the Paris Declaration, accountability is still largely about African and other poorer countries’ governments being accountable to donors and other funders, instead of their own democratic and elective institutions, and the citizens in whose names they act. Even our most vocal NGOs and the alarming growing numbers of our social movements and CSOs, are more accountable to their funders than the people they claim or are elected to serve. Bilateral aid between governments is still dominated by political and geo-strategic considerations instead of need. Conditionalities are for those governments or leaders you do not like while they can be waived or discounted for those who are your current allies, regardless of impact on the ground. Honest people in NGOs and CSOs will also admit that funding is not so much a function of good work or impact on the ground; it is dependent more on technical know whom and less on know how. Knowing the right people in the right place in donor agencies, governments, etc. helps in getting access to funds. That’s why INGOs may be part of CSOs in their respective donor countries, but among the poor that they serve or their dependent ‘partners’, they are donors with the same conditionalities, arrogance and self serving agenda as their governments.
Just as particular Presidents may be preferred, similarly particularly heads of NGOs (in most cases they always go by the instructive title of ‘Executive Director’!) may be the favourite of one donor or the other.
So these discussions are not always between equals. How can we have discussions about equity when every time we have dinner one diner always pick up the tab even if the dinner is taking place in your own home? There can only be one-way accountability between a cat and a mouse, and we all know who is accountable to whom. In any case you can be an accountant without being accountable. Aid has reduced our governments and NGOs to being ‘creative accountants’ which is not the same as being accountable to their citizens or constituencies! Even supposedly democratic institutions like Parliaments and elected local governments are excluded from the discussions. If elected persons do not get a look in, what chance has the ordinary citizen? In most African countries, the parliament is a mere rubber stamp to the Executive and at the local level we have ‘elected autocrats’ whose powers are checked by nobody, least of all the people who voted them in.
There is a direct relationship between taxation and accountability. That’s why one of the demands of the bourgeois revolutionaries in America against the British Crown was, ‘no taxation without representation’. Yet in many African countries we are demanding representation and accountability, not for taxes we have paid, but donor funds or share of rents from foreign corporations who monopolise the exploitation of our minerals. By all means we must demand to know WHAT THEY PAY OR GIVE but also we must KNOW WHAT WE PAY, COLLECT AND RECEIVE.
The debate on Aid cannot be democratic because it is essentially one way and has been driven by ‘the good intentions’ of the richer countries. That is why it is taking place outside the framework of UN conferences and WTO, but once consensus is imposed it must be legitimised by these institutions. It is a larger version of the EU Plan for Africa misleadingly called EU-AFRICA strategy.
The power imbalance was clear at this forum: while scholars and activists battle it out in exciting exchanges on definitions , concepts, scope etc., in the various roundtables side events, in media rooms, on the internet, and in pages of newspapers, the real battle is in the restricted rooms where ‘consensus’ is being imposed by those who control the agenda.
“Forward ever, backward never”… Kwame Nkrumah (1909 – 1972)