As we in the UK wonder who will be in charge of DFID on May 7 (plausible scenarios can be generated for each of the 3 main political parties), three articles on governance and aid caught my eye.
The first, An Upside Down View of Governance, reports on the work of the Centre for the Future State, a consortium convened by IDS. The report argues that donors must change the way they think about governance or become redundant. Mental models of governance held by DAC donors have the wrong starting assumption "that progressive change consists in, and can be achieved through, strengthening the formal, rules-based institutions that reflect a clear division between public and private spheres of life". The report argues that donors should rather restrict themselves to doing things that only they can do--such as fix international governance of finances, drugs, and arms which create incentives for weak governance in the South. Donors should also learn to identify overlaps of interest between themselves and national groups and then focus on those. Tax reform is a good (and perhaps rare) example of this--developing country governments want to increase revenue, donors are interested in increasing finance for development, and OECD governments are keen to improve international financial regulation. Above all, donors should see themselves as facilitating local political processes that can contribute to progressive change. This means developing country governments and donors working in a more inclusive way with a wider range of actors, not an easy thing for any of us to do, especially in a donor culture that emphasises short term delivery above all. The report is very well written and draws on an enormous amount of primary research from the consortium partners and others.
Another publication by Paul Isenman and Alexander Shakow, Donor Schizophrenia and Aid Effectiveness: The Role of Global Funds, concludes that "a better balance needs to be struck between global funds and 'horizontal' assistance, and between bilateral and multilateral aid". If the "Upside Down" report focused on how donors need to discard old mental models to better contribute to good enough governance, this report points out the contradictions between two current donor mental models: vertical and horizontal funding. It asks what donors, who are at the same time funders and critics of global funds, can do to increase the coherence of their own policies and actions. How to square the circle? How to diagonalize funding support? The authors call for donors to stop treating these two mechanisms as ships passing in the night, begin seeing them as potentially complementary instruments in aid investment portfolios, adjust internal policies and incentives to manage competition between sectors (e.g. through increasing coherence of their representation on the boards of global funds) and make more of an effort to ‘think twice’ before starting new funds.
The two previous reports point to the need for donor officials to invest in relationships to help to understand and contribute to the reality they work in. Rosalind Eyben's comment "Relationships Matter"on Amy Pollard's article on donor coordination in Indonesia published in the Broker, reminds us how difficult it is for any bureaucracy to do this, especially ones that operate at a distance and can control the narrative about the tangible influence they are having on the local scene. In the context of aid officials' everyday work, they compete with each other for access to donor country resources and for influence in their location. Even co-location of different agency staff working on the same issue is nigh on impossible.
These articles contribute to a sense of fin de siecle for the current aid set up as we know it. We recently held a donor roundtable as a part of the Reimagining Development programme, the report of which we will share in the next couple of weeks. The main issue that arose in that meeting, was how national self interests (donor and non), global sustainability interests and poverty reducing MDG-type interests can be aligned. They don't have to overlap, but they can. The challenge, as the Upside Down Governance report puts it, is for all of us to switch off pre-existing knowledge that constrains our imagination. The report tells us how, when learning to draw, some art teachers advocate an initial exercise of copying a drawing that has been turned upside down--this is the way we can seen angles, relationships and proportions differently.
Upside down perspectives, new mental models, schizophrenic tensions, and the surfacing of relationships--donors are on the couch as never before.