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May 6, 2013

Why are there so few bloggers at the UN? A conversation with staff.

May 6, 2013

How to end foreign aid and avoid a punch-up

May 6, 2013
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An edited version of this piece appeared on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site on Saturday

The spat between South Africa and Britain over ending its (very small) aid programme has sparked another round of debate about whether British aidend-is-near-cartoonshould be going to middle income countries (the last round was over aid to India, which seems to particularly rile the Daily Mail).

But whatever the rights and wrongs of ending aid to South Africa (whose economy is growing slowly, but with sky high levels of inequality and 10 per cent of all the world’s people living with HIV and Aids), aid agencies are inevitably going to have to shift money around as the world changes. Countries rise and fall, aid priorities change and new opportunities (like the opening up of Myanmar) will arise, to which aid should of course respond.

That churning process is accelerating as more and more countries reduce their dependence on aid thanks to economic growth, rising revenues from oil and gas and surging remittances from their migrant workers overseas. Those upward curves contrast with falling aid volumes.  Total global aid flows have been falling for the last two years as, with the sole glorious exception of the UK, the ‘Austerians’ in what are sometimes known as ‘the formerly rich countries’ take the axe to aid spending.

What’s more, many developing country governments can’t wait to end aid – it affronts the dignity of the Big Men (as they usually are) in charge to be seen as asking for handouts. As two Ugandan ministers once proudly told me ‘when 60% of our revenues came from aid, we had to go to the World Bank on both knees. Now we’ve got it down to 30%.’ (Unfortunately, I blew it by joking ‘ah, so do you just go on one knee now, then?’ They were not amused.)

So the issue is not whether aid partnerships sometimes have to end, but how. Oxfam has some ideas on that – several pages of guidelines on ‘exit planning’ in fact. They are about ending funding to particular grassroots organisations, but they offer useful lessons for DFID and others contemplating exits from entire countries. Talk to the partner from the outset, help them fill any organisational gaps and weaknesses before you go; agree (don’t impose) a clear timetable for phasing out funding and crucially, agree what kind of relationship you want once the cash tap has been turned off. Because as one Oxfam partner from Pakistan put it, ‘We want to be treated as a “relationship” and not just as a “partner”’. Partnerships are for projects, but relationships go beyond that. We should have a relationship in the future, even if there is no project money.’‘ Sadly, the unpleasantness over DFID’s exit from South Africa means that remaining relationship has got off to a rocky start.

SA Pres demonstrates what he'd like to do to DFID

SA Pres demonstrates what he'd like to do to DFID

I imagine DFID has similar guidelines, but those can’t legislate for ministers shooting from the hip (or if conspiracy theorists are to be believed, throwing a bone to the Tory right ahead of local elections last week). Still, if civil servants in the land of ‘Yes Minister’ can’t manage their political masters, what are we coming to?

Joking aside, this matters. Aid agencies need a clear understanding of what constitutes a responsible exit. After all, aid should bequeath a legacy of trust and friendship between the UK and the rising powers of Africa and Asia, (who incidentally, we are going to need in future), but in this case that legacy has been (temporarily, I hope) squandered. Ending the aid relationship should be a moment of mutual celebration, not public mud-slinging.

Update: and here’s a new report on the subject of responsible exit

6 comments

  1. Actually it should be noted as ending bilateral foreign aid. DFID’s contributions to multilaterals (UN agencies and RDBs, not World Bank IDA since SA is not IDA eligible)will still continue to fund development programmes there.

  2. South Africa is a typical “Tale of two Cities”. There is the glitz and glamour of Gauteng, the hub of all business and corruption and there are places like Khayelitsha where I saw poverty and all the other lacks one can think of. Housing, unemployment, water, electricity, poor health delivery systems and it is the same country whose local NGO Gift of the Givers is galavanting to Syria when their own backyard is burning! SA needs to get their priorities right! They must stop behaving like Big Brother and face their own problems honestly. Surely if Gift of the Givers is busy going to Somalia and Syria, surely SA does not need any Aid!

  3. I think that the point regarding “relationships” rather than “partnerships,” is a critical one. Partnerships are fine, unless the junior “partner” feels like they are able to provide meaningful input.

    Also, ending aid, and also, on a smaller scale, closing out projects, should do more than pay lip service to real sustainability where that is a desired outcome. Often the sustainability of projects resulting from aid is an afterthought, when it should be an integral part of the planning and implementaion from the very beginning.

  4. Every programme and project should be an exit strategy, otherwise it is not aid but creation of a dependency relationship. Donors, NGOs and project designers very rarely include this dimension. DFID in Cambodia is an interesting exception, where it entered with a 10-year timeframe, closed on time, implemented contingency plans to sustain and close activities that had (inevitably) run over schedule, and put great effort into finding new work for national staff they had employed. Exit planning ought to be part of the ‘sustainability’ design element that almost everyone includes, but that element is usually a mish-mash of platitudes and vague promises.

    Also, fundamental to an exit strategy is a political economy analysis: what are the conditions that got us into this place initially and what will need to be different for us to get out?

  5. Reading this article made me think about the day when the BRICS countries start sending aid to the UK.

    Given the parlous state of the UK economy, and the UK Government’s contempt for the poor, surely this should be sooner, rather than later.

    I think such a scenario provides us with much food for thought. For instance, what would be the right “entry” strategy for the new aid donors? Will the “Big Men” of the UK feel their dignity affronted? In which case, how to handle the entry in a diplomatic way, given that the UK will be needing these countries long into the foreseeable future?

  6. Another serious question is: Is aid just a matter of relative poverty of the two countries? I think not.

    Aid is an extension of foreign policy.

    This, on the UK giving aid to India, from The Times of India:

    “The Cameron government’s policy to continue the aid has come in for much ridicule, also because International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell had linked the continuation of aid to “seeking to sell Typhoon.” (The Typhoon is a fighter jet.)

    and

    “Mitchell last night defended giving the aid, saying: “Our completely revamped programme is in India’s and Britain’s national interest and is a small part of a much wider relationship between our two countries.” (Note: “in the national interest”.)

    All this despite India telling the UK it did not WANT the aid, describing it as “peanuts”. Yet the UK insists. So: what’s going on here?

    It’s about political influence, not goodness of heart.

    Therefore, ending aid is not about having an “exit strategy”. It’s about ending political influence. And why would the UK want to do that? It will want to do that when having political influence in India and South Africa are no longer seen by the UK as “in the national interest.”

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