"The Fututre is a Book With Seven Locks" is a Dutch proverb which means the future cannot be predicted.
On 18 January 2010 the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) presented its report ‘Less pretension, more ambition: development aid that makes a difference’ to the Dutch Minister for Development Cooperation, Mr Bert Koenders.
The study envisions a different future for Dutch aid. It is causing quite a stir and there is a good international debate going on at the Broker web site.
The themes of the report resonate with me: (a) aid can make a difference, but there is no formula and a deep understanding of context is essential, (b) when it does have an impact, these are most likely to be modest compared to other drivers and income streams, (c) not enough of the aid is targeted towards structural transformation and growth, (d) not enough attention is given by aid agencies to global governance issues, and (e) aid has to be recast as a series of strategic investments in global development.
A few observations:
(1) The modesty language bothers me a little. I think it is fair to say that modesty should be the default position when it comes to expectations about what much of aid can do. But modesty should not be the aspiration. A few of the bets will pay off big, and we should expect them to. We just cannot expect most of them to. Aid is one of the few income sources that have the potential to be truly redistributive. But it is a relatively small resource and it should be used strategically to lever change, not simply to fill gaps.
(2) The report argues that social sector spending is less transformative structurally than some other investments. But spending in this area can be hugely transformative in terms of shifting power relations and changing the rules of the game--think of the research that shows how investments in health, education and social protection drive the rate and pattern of growth. Just as there is no one formula for development, there is no one formula for social sector spending. Perhaps social sector spending is simply the victim of an apparent but false certitude that one size really does fit all.
(3) There is not enough about sustainability in the conclusions of the report. I like the call for more reflection on the balance between short term and long term and between those in poverty and in the middle class, but there needs to be more nuance brought to the analysis of the types of growth that support development.
(4) Finally, there is a certain amount of romanticising of DFID. To its immense credit, DFID is probably the leading bilateral development agency, and it has invested heavily in knowledge generation, but it is also under fire for mission creep and overstretch with the critics arguing that it is working in too many countries, on too many issues, with not enough staff.
I am really impressed by the modesty and the ambition of the conclusions to the report. I applaud the authors and the Dutch development community for taking the ideas in the document so seriously. I recommend you read it.