Civil society fight for transparency of aid

Women and children search a
garbage dump for cans to sell
in Timor Leste.
(Photo: Martine Perret/UN)

Three weeks before the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, South Korea, civil society organizations don’t hide their disappointment about the expected results of the gathering. “In the relative obscurity of closed-door meetings, donor governments are making last-minute attempts to renege on their aid transparency commitments,” summed up Claudia Elliot, Make Aid Transparent campaign’s spokesperson. All the process seems to bring into question the whole concept of aid.

The 101 organizations that make up this global network, launched in June, believe that “time is running out to ensure” that donor countries “stick to the promises” they signed on the matter, included in the Rome Declaration (2002), the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (2005) and the subsequent Accra Agenda for Action (2008), along with developing countries, multilateral and international agencies and development banks.

As the 29 Nov-1 Dec forum is getting closer, the process lacks of “specific, time-bound commitments to aid transparency from donors, countries receiving aid will continue to be left in the dark about what’s happening,” warns Make Aid Transparent.

But donors have made less effort and less progress than developing countries in implementing aid effectiveness commitments since 2005, even though those pledges demanded less from donors, according to the report “Aid Effectiveness 2005-2010: Progress in Implementing the Paris Declaration”, released in September by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

While developing country progress was praised as “significant” in the report, OECD countries, which currently provide the lion’s share of development aid ($120 billion of aid annually), failed to make this funds work to address poverty, according to BetterAid, a network of over 700 development organizations from civil society. The OECD, which 34 members include all the economies of the rich North, has been an active actor in the process opened in Rome.

But this presence does not receive unanimous welcome. A working group composed by Moroccan groups Espace Associatif, Democratic League of the Rights of the Woman and the 3rd Millennium Association suggested the “enlargement of the worldwide frame of collaboration for development by inserting United Nations’ system in the monitoring of process (instead of OECD) going to a new meaning of partnership for democratic development”.

The Paris Declaration recognizes developing countries’ right to set their own priorities for development, commit the donor countries to strengthen developing countries’ institutions and lead in coordinating aid and to line up their aid behind recipient nations priorities. It also binds developing countries and donors to focus on producing and measuring results and to hold accountable for the results they achieve to each other, to their parliaments and to the public.

The Accra Agenda for Action goes further. It commits donors to provide three to five year estimates of their planned aid, recognizes developing country systems as the first option to deliver aid, switches the usual prescriptive conditions on how and when aid money is spent to remark the developing country’s own objectives as the basis of the allocation, and relaxes donors’ restrictions that prevent developing countries from buying the goods and services they need wherever they can get the best quality at the lowest price. Transparency is the key of both agreements.

The meeting in Accra “ended with the recognition that effective development cooperation requires democratic ownership, transparency and an enabling environment for to civil society,” explains Michèle Laubscher, expert on development cooperation of Swiss organization Alliance Sud. “Another idea that also gained traction in Accra was that aid can contribute only modestly to the social and economic development of poor countries. Much more important are government policies in these countries as well as external factors such as global economic and trade conditions, […] generally dictated by the industrialized countries. Future discussions should therefore be about ‘development effectiveness’ rather than just aid effectiveness.”

In the middle of the process of shaping those concepts, few weeks after the conference in Accra, the financial and economic global crisis broke out, and the answer of the donor countries was the fiscal tightening. Rich nations began “to switch from fiscal stimulus to fiscal discipline in an effort to maintain or recover the confidence of financial markets,” warned the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in September. The spending cuts included the aid.

“Richer nations cannot use the economic crisis as an excuse not to follow through on their engagements,” said Tony Tujan, co-chair of BetterAid.

“The world faces interlinked political, financial, economic, food, climate and energy crises, the brunt of which are being borne by impoverished and marginalised communities,” warned Mandeep Tiwana, of the World Alliance for Citizen Participation (Civicus). “Development assistance budgets are under threat. […] The world needs an urgent shift from the old aid concept of charity and patronage to one of working together towards a common good. It is essential to redefine development cooperation by ushering in a new paradigm where the vulnerable and marginalized are not left behind.”

“Recent evaluations have shown the scale of underperformance by donors on commitments that were not sufficient in making effective development possible in the first place. Many donors are now even abandoning their promises on making aid effective,” says Jenny Del Rosario Malonzo, from Reality of Aid Philippines.

“Aid is under assault and EU self-interest seems to be driving it. It’s bad enough that the majority of member states are cutting aid but using it to mask domestic or foreign policy priorities is totally unacceptable,” said Jean Kamau, from ActionAid Kenya.

But civil society organizations are not giving up the fight. The Make Aid Transparent campaign has recruited 101 coalition members in six months and over 6,000 signatures around the world. The aim is hand over 10,000 signatures “urging ministers to open their books” and to force them to set “specific, time-bound commitments to aid transparency from donors”. On the contrary, warns the campaign, the “countries receiving aid will continue to be left in the dark about what’s happening”.  

More information
EU “self-interest” drives European aid, warns AidWatch:
From aid effectiveness to development effectiveness:

This report is based on data from the following sources:
Make Aid Transparent Campaign:
de Alto Nivel sobre la Eficacia de la Ayuda:
The Reality of Aid:
Espace Associatif:
AllianceSud :
BetterAid :