To misquote Tolstoy, all international summits are alike, be they G8s, G20s, World Trade Organisation ministerials, UNCTAD meetings or this week’s 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness.
They are generally held in soulless convention centres whose utilitarian architecture is barely softened by the temporary addition of poor-quality carpets and laminated banners bearing garish logos.
They are characterised by brief moments of high excitement and many hours of boredom. They foreground pomp and ceremony in large plenary sessions, but the real negotiations happen in the weeks and months beforehand, and then on the sidelines of the main event.
For the campaigning organisations I work with (and probably for many of the politicians too) the events are a necessary evil. They are the moment when the world’s attention turns briefly to an issue – such as climate change, trade rules or aid. And for this reason they can’t be missed.
But most people I know doubt their efficacy, and wonder if they can really justify the vast amounts of money and carbon expended on attendance.
At the very least these events can concentrate minds by providing a deadline and a political moment. This seems to have been the case this time around. In the last few weeks a number of donors have published information about their aid spending to a new common standard, which could make a big difference to how well aid works.
Currently the fact that donors don’t publish up to date information on aid in a comparable format undermines their ability to coordinate with each other and disempowers countries that receive aid by leaving them in semi-darkness about what is coming their way, from whom and for what.
Efforts to improve governance in developing countries and reduce corruption are impeded by the lack of easily accessible and relevant information about aid – not least because civil society and parliaments can’t hold their governments to account or track whether the aid is reaching the intended beneficiaries.
The increased transparency ahead of the Busan meeting is therefore significant (and if the rumours we’re hearing that more major donors will begin publishing their aid data to the common standard before the end of the week are true then this really will be worth celebrating).
Overall, however, the fact remains that traditional aid donors have largely failed to keep their promises to make aid more effective, which means money has been wasted, or worse still, has actually exacerbated or entrenched some of the problems it was meant to solve.
Improving coordination, reducing overlap, giving poor countries more of a say, and making aid more predictable and less political are all valid aims that donors have signed up to and should continue to pursue.
This week’s summit – like all international summits - has high expectations to live up to. It won’t meet them all.
But momentum can be maintained – if donor countries keep an eye on the very valid promises they’ve made and don’t let the ambition be watered down too far.
The political barriers to these reforms are not so high that they cannot and should not be overcome. And the gains would be significant – especially at a time when aid is under pressure and budgets are being slashed.
Let’s hope this summit marks itself out from the others by delivering some concrete changes that make a difference on the ground, to real people living in poverty.