Four immediate responses to Phil Vernon

Phil Vernon asks if overseas development aid is working. This is a good moment, he argues, to take a step back and ask ourselves whether we would call today’s aid policy and practise successful in providing sufficient impetus to overcome the strong forces worldwide that keep people poor. Four immediate replies…
Tina Wallace Alison Evans Michael Edwards
9 November 2009

Michael Edwards

Michael Edwards is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at Manchester University, and the author of Future Positive: International Cooperation in the 21st Century.


Kudos to Phil Vernon for injecting a welcome dose of balance and good sense into a debate dominated by the simplistic certainties of pro- and anti-foreign aid. Phil’s diagnosis of the problem is spot on, but – as with every other treatment of this issue including mine – his remedies are unconvincing, because they don’t go far enough in recognizing the limitations of foreign aid and intervention in leveraging the structural transformations he identifies as the key to development and social change. Many countries have achieved those transformations since World War Two (the East Asian “Tigers” for example, with China, Vietnam, Chile, Brazil and others well on the way), and they used foreign aid where it made sense (mostly for basic things like infrastructure and financing public goods), but domestic ‘blood, sweat and tears’ were the key. Let’s have a debate about development that is not organized around reforming our interference in other people’s affairs, and then we might actually get somewhere.

Alison Evans.

Alison Evans is Director of the Overseas Development Institute in London, an independent think tank working on international development and humanitarian issues.

Phil Vernon’s eloquent piece on aid has a high scribble factor. And that is a very good thing. I found myself scribbling reactions in the margins, mostly in agreement, and experiencing a strong sense of déjà vu about his description of the limits of technocratic thinking and the tendency within aid bureaucracies to shy away from the politics of what is, in fact, a highly political sector.  Bringing politics to the fore is crucial but only the beginning and we need to be careful not to substitute pseudo technical thinking with over generalisations about ‘getting the politics right’.  I agree very much with Phil about the need to shift attitudes and for a more honest and open dialogue about how to make aid more effective. Tackling the political economy of aid that underpins system inertia is critical. But I am surprised that Phil has such a sanguine attitude toward the role of conditionality in incentivising progressive change in poor countries. If there is one aspect of the aid relationship that has come under most critical scrutiny and where the radical solutions are most needed, this is probably it. 

Gideon Rabinowitz

Gideon Rabinowitz is Coordinator of the UK Aid Network (UKAN), the network of UK development NGOs working to promote more and better UK aid. He is writing in his personal capacity and his views do not represent those of UKAN members.

On receiving Phil’s article I wanted to both click delete in my inbox and stick it on my office wall to keep it in full view. Why? Because the issues he raises have no easy answers and strike at the core of aid practice today. The instinct is therefore to brush them under the table, which, as Phil says, seems to have been the response of the development community to date. But on the other hand they are issues we all have at least in the back of our minds and know need to be addressed - otherwise our legitimacy and the future of the aid industry is under serious threat. I am increasingly persuaded by the latter, and want to respond to Phil’s very stimulating ideas.

I agree wholeheartedly with Phil’s core thesis that donors need to be better informed of the political ramifications of their actions and invest much more in their thinking about how to best support political and societal change. Whether they like it or not, donors are political actors: by taking a decision of whether to support a government or not, or whether to support one civil society group over another, they affect the relative influence and strength of these interest groups.

However, the current policies and practices of donors suggest that they do not fully appreciate these sensitivities. Their use of excessive and misguided conditionality and technical advice that all-too-often imposes ideas about development, weakens democratic accountability of developing country governments to their citizens, and dampens motivation to take ownership. Also, whilst budget support has helped to deliver significant investment in health, education and other important services, donors have failed to deliver strategic support to stakeholders, institutions and processes that can help to hold governments accountable for this spending alongside this form of aid, which as Phil points out means that existing power structures that can be self-serving and somewhat corrupt are not scrutinised or challenged sufficiently.

From anecdotal accounts (there have been few if any studies of this question), it also seems as though donors are not investing sufficiently in political analysis and thinking about its implications. In addition to the point about the UK Department for International Development’s (DFID’s) staff moving on from countries too frequently, there are also questions about whether DFID’s delivery of increasing aid with fewer staff (to meet government efficiency targets) will allow it to take a more politically sensitive approach in the future.

Whilst I agree that we cannot allow the technical questions around aid to distract us from tackling the political ones, I do though believe that the technical issues can deliver significant change. After all, unpredictable aid reduces its value by around 20%; tying aid reduces its value by 15-30%; and dealing with uncoordinated donors leaves recipient governments with limited spare capacity to deal with domestic stakeholders.

 I want to caution against Phil’s view that the MDGs are a distraction. I do not think they are a panacea, as they take quite a narrow approach to development and could distract from efforts to support political change.

 But we do need to balance our support for such change with helping deliver real changes to people’s lives. The MDGs give us some sense of how governments are doing in this respect and therefore could be expected to deliver in the future with continued support.

 I also want to caution against Phil’s faith in conditionality. The past record of conditionality is poor – governments will not do what they don’t want to, and can find ways to outfox donors on such approaches all too easily. Also, donors’ use of conditionality to date suggests that they are unlikely to use it sensitively enough to ensure it does not weaken accountability of governments to their citizens. Political, governance, rights-based conditionalities have a role. But the main legwork will be done by patient, strategic and politically informed investment in key stakeholders, institutions and processes that are vital to building accountable societies.

 Government proposals in its White Paper to increase investment in accountability, pass its decisions about budget support by expert panels and improve transparency will be helpful in responding to these challenges; as will Conservative proposals in their Green Paper, to increase investment in accountability and be more hard nosed about budget support.

 However, I agree with Phil that neither Paper seemed to face the questions about political sensitivity and capacity to respond to these challenges face on. With both proposing increased UK investment in fragile and conflict affected states, where such an approach is even more necessary, this is a concern. 

Tina Wallace   

Tina Wallace is a freelancer working with NGOs in UK and across Africa addressing the barriers to change, and a research associate at Queen Elizabeth House, in International Gender Studies. 

 This article is welcome and timely, reflecting as it does concerns found dotted across the aid sector but which are struggling to be heard. While the dominant language is about local ownership to ensure sustainability, in fact externally defined targets and short-term objectives currently drive the aid agenda, with seriously negative results. Both governments and civil society find themselves heavily shaped by these orthodoxies and ministries and NGOs spend far more time trying to meet the current conditionalities of aid and reporting on their 'successes' in so doing, rather than listening to and responding to the needs of their own constituencies.

 Why the system continues is complex and needs further analysis, but Phil’s article identifies some very interesting areas of collusion and self-interest that straddle aid agencies, whether they are government, non-government or multi-lateral agencies. There is currently an almost palpable fear among senior staff and trustees in some INGOs about challenging current paradigms, sharing their failures or real challenges around working with the poor for fear of losing money and their status within the aid world. 

 Yet many in the NGO sector and among wider social movements know there is much wrong with the current understanding of development and the role of aid. The challenge is how to get these views heard and discussed within civil society and by those who hold the levers of power in bi-laterals and multi-lateral aid agencies. The space for identifying different development practice will only open up when there is acknowledgement that development requires social change and transformation, work - to address gender inequality for example - that can take decades (requiring as it does bringing women without a voice into the debates and addressing the deep inequalities that have kept them excluded for so long). Yet without these major shifts in access to resources, power, opportunities and decision-making, real change cannot happen.

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