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A cheat's guide to the Busan conference

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COMMENTS

25 November 2011 14:32

This time next week, over 2000 delegates representing the developed world's aid agencies, the developing world's planning departments, the globe's international development agencies and non-government organisations, emerging donors including China, Brazil and India, and a handful of influential private foundations will be in Busan, Korea for the latest global gathering on aid effectiveness.

The point is to get better value for the aid dollars invested in the developing world. Or, as it's described in aid-speak: improving aid effectiveness.

But the developed world's enthusiasm for aid and the budgets to match, the hallmark of the early 2000s, have dwindled in line with the economic misfortunes of a number of the donors. As the headlines continue to forecast a eurozone implosion and the economic health of the world's largest donor, the US, remains poor, next week's meeting should be taking on a new sense of urgency. With less aid money, it's imperative to get maximum value out of what is available. But is that going to happen? Or will it be a continuation of a process that has become an end in itself?

Each of the three aid effectiveness meetings before Busan produced its own plan for action, with each succeeding plan becoming more complex in the process. The first meeting in Rome in 2003 saw a comparatively small roomful of donors, international agencies and recipients commit to working together to meet the developing world's priorities and not just those of the donors. In theory, a simple and sensible approach and the only surprising element was that it had taken so long for everyone to come to this obvious conclusion.

Paris was two years later and this time the meeting had grown to representatives from 100 donors and developing countries with ministers, heads of agencies and other officials signing onto the Paris Declaration of Aid Effectiveness. In the aid-speak words of the declaration, the themes were ownership (developing countries were to be in charge of their own development); alignment (donors were to help developing countries meet their own development priorities, not the donors'); harmonisation (donors were to talk to each other to avoid duplication and reduce the administrative demands on the developing country); managing for results (there had to be a successful outcome); and mutual accountability (all parties to answer to their own parliaments and taxpayers).

Three years later, the Accra meeting added another set of should-do aid effectiveness actions set out in the aptly named Accra Agenda for Action. Still in aid speak (no translations provided this time), the additional principles aim to get donors to provide some assurances about future budget commitments, developing countries were urged to improve their own processes and systems, donors were asked to be less prescriptive about how aid money was spent in-country, and they were also asked to stop insisting that goods and services be purchased from the donor's own country. 

Next week's meeting in Busan will review how the expanding aid effectiveness agenda has progressed. And to help the discussions, the OECD conducted a survey earlier this year to see how far the aid effectiveness principles had been applied. 'The results are sobering', says the OECD. Only one of the 13 targets set for 2010 had been met. 

Like any 'could do better' report, there is the encouraging add-on that 'considerable progress has been made towards many of the remaining 12 targets'. But when you dig a little deeper, it's the donors who are still dragging the chain even on that first relatively focused and straightforward commitment made way back in Rome — to work better together. According to the 2011 survey, aid is becoming more fragmented, and little progress has been made among donors to have common arrangements.

It's also sobering to recall that the aid effectiveness agenda was first conceived by the then exclusive aid donors club — the OECD's Development Assistance Committee. With just 23 government members, it shouldn't have been so difficult to achieve what is the fundamental ingredient for any successful operation —  working as a team. Now that club isn't so exclusive anymore. Busan will have 2000 participants, a stark contrast to Rome. 

Importantly, Busan will welcome donors who in 2003 were still recipients. It will also welcome another 'class' of donor, private foundations such as the Gates Foundation. Together, these so-called emerging or new donors represent new ways of doing aid and development. Unfortunately, not all of them want to adopt the same way.

For Australia, one of the few government donors sticking by its aid budget commitments, the challenge will be to come away from Busan with a result that strips away the unwieldy and verbose complexity now characteristic of the process and one that just might lead to the desired outcome – better aid and good development results.

Photo by Flickr user Images_of_Money.

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