On the road to Accra

Tina Wallace
5 August 2008

The Paris Declaration (PD) on Aid Effectiveness adopted in 2005 outlined new aid mechanisms designed to enable more progress to be made in meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In February this year the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC) ran a forum with civil society organisations to discuss their role in aid effectiveness, in the run-up to the Declaration review meeting in Accra this September.

It was promoted as an open space for all sides of the aid world to freely share their views of the role of civil society organisations (CSOs) in poverty reduction. The agenda was wide-ranging and hopes were high. Nearly two hundred representatives came: from southern and northern governments, donors, southern NGOs and their northern counterparts.

For all its concern with mutual ownership, accountability and aid effectiveness, the Paris Declaration had largely excludes civil society. The forum reached consensus about this exclusion and agreed the pivotal role of CSOs in effective aid work, for promoting accountability, delivering services and monitoring government use of donor funds. This message will go forward to the mid-term review of the Declaration in Accra. An excellent outcome of what was, in many ways, an exciting and innovative event; yet it left me feeling troubled.

Understanding the feeling of unease

There seem to be several strands to my unease. The Paris Declaration recognised the inappropriateness of external donor agencies controlling national aid agendas, and sought to hand these over while harmonising and therefore cutting donor transaction costs. But how far have donors released their hold? All the key instruments of aid - for example- the Poverty Reduction Strategy Plans (PRSPs) and the spending agreements have to meet donor requirements. The uniformity of PRSPs across widely different contexts belies the commitment to local ownership. PD focuses more on internal aid management criteria, with aid effectiveness defined in technical, bureaucratic terms while ignoring the external factors that lock countries into disadvantageous positions - factors including the World Trade Agreements and primary commodity pricing.

Tina Wallace is a research associate at the University of Oxford's International Gender Studies Centre and an honorary senior research fellow at the Oxford Brookes School of Business. She is a sociologist and development consultant, an experienced researcher and practitioner with NGOs, has taught in Universities in Africa and Europe, and has wide experience of working with the NGO sector in UK and Africa.

Also in openDemocracy by Tina Wallace:

"The aid imbalance" (5 June 2007)

Many southern governments still do not feel they shape donor spending and feel vulnerable to the imposition of external ideas. At the forum donors said that they have seen major shifts in aid discussions and ownership. But multiple concerns about the PD design and process were articulated by CSOs from around the world. The evidence, stories, issues raised about the PD, different in different contexts, were well presented and impressive in their accumulated weight. But this had little impact: these issues were ruled out as beyond the focus of the forum.

Those funding the forum apparently had clear objectives to meet about including CSOs in the development process in future and people who came to explore the realities of how PD approaches are working were made to feel increasingly naïve as the conference progressed. Far from being an open conversation a clearly defined agenda emerged and broader evidence about whether the PD is ultimately effective in improving the quality of aid was not welcomed.

An important absence

Like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the Plans are also largely gender blind. Key voices go unheard while expatriate technical assistants continue to sit in key ministries raising concerns about the real meaning of ‘local ownership'.

This was reflected at the conference as a basic problem of representation. Women were notable by their absence. None of the plenary sessions were chaired by women; rarely did women reach the platform. One woman alone was on the advisory group of twelve, women were under-represented in chairing and speaking. A few were allowed a role in the round table discussions. A hasty two-day pre-meeting was set up by gender activists to discuss this issue once the imbalance was spotted - but it was too little and too late; there were no mechanisms for the gender findings to feed into the larger forum. Why was this pre-meeting of women even necessary in 2008, when every donor has a version of a Gender Equality Action Plan and the rhetoric of gender trips off everyone's tongue?

It is many years since I have felt the need to publically speak out on such a basic issue as that of representation, yet at the start of the meeting I reluctantly got to my feet. Several women spoke subsequently about the ‘shame' of this omission in the planning and the lack of any gender analysis around the Paris Declaration. Even then there was a ‘behind the scenes' battle to get the women's caucus represented in a plenary session. They spoke with one hour's notice. In the conference's Final Report it says the forum ‘adjust[ed] the agenda to provide space for their challenge' but really gender inequalities and women's priorities were largely ignored - or laughed off.

Had an effective women's voice been present, what difference might it have made? An issue such as the threat to women's sexual and reproductive rights arising from current - often punitive - aid policies around HIV/AIDS work would certainly have been raised (Alice Welbourn,"HIV/AIDS:a war on women",) Concerns around the erosion of funding under the PD for women's rights work and women's organisations; the lack of gender analysis and monitoring in the MDG reviews; the lack of real commitment to the MDG3 on gender equality within current aid priorities would have been raised, along with many issues of rights to land, representation, voice. Questions would have been asked about whether an aid system closely tied to meeting largely ‘gender blind' MDGs, through the new Paris Declaration aid mechanisms, could ever truly work to reduce poverty? While these issues were touched on sporadically they had little impact on the conference agenda and fell far short of ‘changing the conversation'.

The Accra gavotte

Slowly, it became clear that the meeting was not intended to challenge the status quo. The ‘road to Accra' was largely mapped out in key donor documents already in preparation, leaving only limited room for manoeuvre. The organising advisory group wanted to bring CSOs into the Paris Declaration process; but once in, they did not want them to deconstruct or raise fundamental questions about the need for serious reform of the PD process. At times, the meeting felt like an elaborate gavotte where those in ‘the inner circle' danced to the correct tune with the right steps, understanding the limited nature of the process, while the rest felt out of pace and time.

Also in openDemocracy on women and global development policy:

Patricia Daniel, "Africa: ask the women" (3 August 2008)

"Open letter to the G8: gender at the top of the agenda" (4 June 2007)

Tina Wallace, "The aid imbalance" (5 June 2007),

Andrea Cornwell, "The world women make: beyond 'development-lite'" (30 July 2007)

Podcast: Making development work for women

Podcast: Women and world poverty

Rosalind Eyben, "Making development work for women - again" (29 May 2008),

Simon Maxwell, "Development in a downturn" (4 July 2008)

See also the 2007 blog: openSummit: women talk to the G8

This led to real frustration, especially on the part of some southern CSOs. They had come to share their own experiences of what was happening in their countries. Papers tabled from the regional meeting in Kenya, for example, challenged the ‘mythology' around concepts like national ownership, mutual accountability and management for results. In reality, they said, these are deeply flawed processes. Participants from Mali were concerned by changes under PD funding: growing inequality, unsustainable approaches and the lack of any action to call the government to account when funds were obviously being misused. In Bangladesh, the undemocratic nature of the government put paid to any notion that aid priorities were being served, or were in any meaningful way, ‘locally owned'. In Afghanistan, ‘local ownership' was undermined by the obvious control over aid exerted by the donors. Participants from Tanzania felt that ‘mutual accountability' is ‘a joke' when donors set the rules and also referee the way the game is played; they are the ones who judge and define what constitutes aid effectiveness.

It emerged that ‘local ownership' really meant an agreement between donors and Ministries of Finance from which other ministries and national parliaments were often excluded, as was civil society. Donor preconditions were still firmly in place and most discussions about aid took place between selected aid elites and technocrats. Information was not publicly available. There was anger at the meeting about the lack of accountability in the use and allocation of funding, continued use of tied aid and foreign, expensive expertise, as well as the exclusion (to date) of civil society. All these factors prevented civil society from being able to ‘hold governments to account', and simply bringing them into the PD equation - while leaving this lacuna largely unchanged - was not going to address many legitimate concerns.

Sidelining CSOs

CSO representatives talked about the way in which they could be sidelined by donors and governments who question their legitimacy, capacity and representativeness. Governments, they said, are often reluctant to relate to the diverse voices of civil society, while both donors and governments prefer to deal with NGOs ‘built in their own image' and able to use current highly bureaucratic paper-based aid tools in English, thereby excluding ethnic minorities, many women's organisations, and those working most closely with the poor - in short all those least skilled in ‘aid speak'. Questions of CSO legitimacy and effectiveness were certainly raised many times in the forum, clearly implying that only certain CSOs would be eligible or welcome to participate in the aid agenda.

The picture presented of the impact of the Paris Declaration overall was nothing to feel proud of. In an era when evidence-based work' andresults-based management' are all the rage, it was astonishing that the delegates were reminded, gently at first but then more persistently, by some of the donors and members of the Advisory Group, that this evidence was not the subject under discussion and there was no chance of challenging the Paris Declaration at Accra. Politically, we were told, there is very little room for manoeuvre. Maybe later, post-Accra there might be room to deploy the growing body of evidence that the Declaration is not leading to more effective poverty reduction or development. Meanwhile good proposals, such as the need for independent monitoring, joined the many criticisms of the process that had already been parked.

Seeds of hope

As some of us began to wonder why we had been invited to a conference with such narrow ambitions, a cornerstone of the forum seemed to crumble: the broad donor consensus. Initially, donors presented a united front and described the Paris Declaration as a great opportunity and an essential step in shifting the balance of power from donors to governments. But in discussion, other perspectives emerged. Some donors with direct experience of donor harmonisation processes described the time they took, and the difficulties of securing agreement on quite simple issues. Aligning policies and procedures detracted from the time that should be spent working with the local context. Others talked of the obstacles created by national government agendas and felt that only CSO involvement could help develop real national ownership, the obvious precondition for aid effectiveness. Many said they now felt far removed from development realities; while some are committed to gender equality they now work so far ‘from the coal face' that they have no responsibility for ensuring work includes and targets women.

However frustrating for civil society organisations, they urged pragmatism. One major donor said that in his opinion we were being called in ‘to rescue a failing system'. Yes, the Paris Declaration was not a good development instrument. Yes, it needed radical adjustments. Yes, the rules were unfairly weighted. But this was the model that donors had managed to ‘sell' to their governments and to national governments globally and no-one was about to admit to problems. The last thing needed was copious evidence from ground level CSOs of the failure of the overall approach: bringing CSOs in to put flesh on the bones of some of the Declaration's laudable principles was one of their few remaining options.

CSOs articulated frustration and anger and openly questioned the money spent on this costly venture when the aspirations were so limited. Some delegates chose to turn a blind eye to these voices - in the belief that the road could still lead somewhere exciting and progressive. Several donors reassured participants that getting a short paragraph on CSO roles into the Accra document was sufficient justification for coming to the meeting in what seemed by now a very cold and grey Canada.

Yet the conversations were exciting, unique connections were made between people; there was a richness and depth of perspectives, evidence and ideas that was eye-opening and at times inspiring. My hope is that the power of the information shared, the evidence given and the energy and commitment brought by all to the meeting will be well recorded and disseminated so that, beyond Accra, the real impact of the Paris Declaration on aid effectiveness in countries where there is no democracy, where governments and donors lack transparency, and where there are no mechanisms of accountability, can be properly debated. This, the organisers say they hope to do and acknowledged must be done to keep faith with the aspirations of this costly conference.

To end I offer one key to thinking and behaving differently that emerged from the forum: aid does not belong to the ‘givers'. Rather, development aid is global public funding that belongs to us all, desperately needed to promote the global public goods that are essential to a world where increasing injustice and inequality are impacting on all aspects of our global, human existence.

A longer version of this article will appear in February 2009 in Development in Practice


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