Organisation - January 21, 2010

Development aid: economy vs education

Joris Tielens

Development aid needs to become more professional. This is the conclusion of the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) in its report entitled Less pretension, more ambition, development aid that makes a difference. We should focus more on economic growth and less on education and healthcare. Is that a good idea?

Agriculture in Burundi

Prof. Peter van Lieshout, a member of the WRR and the report's principal author:
'The time has come to focus more on economic growth. The aim of development aid should be to make countries more self-reliant. Distribution issues are important too, but you first need to have something you can distribute. It all starts with economic growth. So more consideration should be given to productive sectors, including agriculture. We are not abandoning healthcare and education, but will do so if they do not contribute towards self-reliance.
'Development aid should be restricted to ten countries and should become more professional. There is not enough expertise at the embassies, where aid activities are dominated by career diplomats. We are proposing a new, independent organization in these ten countries: NL-AID, analogous to UK-AID and US-AID. This club would distribute government money among organizations in developing countries.  The co-financing system, whereby NGOs like Oxfam-Novib, ICCO or Cordaid receive money from the government, is becoming out-dated. There will still be a role for these NGOs, for example in collaborating with local NGOs or in lobbying in the Netherlands, but it is better if the governments of the countries in question tackle education and healthcare themselves. NGOs would only play a part in this if the governments themselves were not up to it, for example in fragile states.
'In addition to traditional aid becoming more professional, development cooperation should also broaden its reach by addressing the question of global public goods. Stable nations, security, fair trade and a fair tax system, migration and climate change are all global issues that can have a bigger effect on the development of countries than development aid itself. There needs to be a better fit between development aid and other efforts in these areas.'
Bert Koenders, the Minister for Development Cooperation, in his initial reaction in the Nieuwspoort press centre: 
'I find this a constructive report that goes beyond sloganeering. When I came into office I started modernizing aid. The WRR's proposals are in tune with this. Climate change, food shortages and armed conflicts mean that development cooperation is something that affects us all.
'I want to have a big think about how aid is organized and I am prepared to make radical changes to achieve modernization. I am not yet able to respond to specific recommendations. They first need to be discussed by the government as a whole. I do see some problems with the idea of a new organization like NL-AID, such as more costs and bureaucracy. It is a good idea to focus more on economic development. Education and healthcare aid should not be a question of just covering up the cracks, such aid needs to contribute to economic development.'
 Dr. Peter Oosterveer, lecturer in the Environmental Policy Group and former employee of Oxfam-Novib:
'I find it a sterile report because it barely considers the developing countries themselves and the way in which they formulate policy. It remains a Dutch debate about how we ought to spend our money. What is more, it is not a very inspiring account because it is neither one thing nor the other. On the one hand, the report recommends restricting traditional aid to ten countries only and spending less on fighting poverty and promoting education and healthcare while spending more on economic development. On the other hand, it advocates putting more effort into tackling global problems. Reading this, I wonder how you can combine the two and whether development cooperation will have the capacity to work on these broader global problems.'
Dr. Maja Slingerland, researcher with the Plant Production Systems Group:
'There seems to be a movement away from the support of public services and civil society. Economic development and private investments are taking their place. That is a worldwide trend that we are also seeing in the Netherlands. But it is not a good idea to have less education and healthcare. Indeed, research shows that countries with a higher average level of education also have higher economic growth. But quite apart from the effect on economic growth; improving welfare through education or healthcare can be a goal in its own right.
'We are seeing a shift from a social world view to a liberal world view. It is remarkable that we are still striving for economic growth as the ultimate goal at this time, just when the global economy is in a state of collapse. The crisis ought to be a reason for investing in education or drinking water, things that are not as ephemeral as banks' share prices. I am pleased, though, that agricultural is once again getting the recognition it deserves. And development cooperation does need to be embedded in a broader world view, I agree with that. However that broader world view should not just be an economic viewpoint. And if aid is intended to prevent migration, then you will need to provide far more aid than at the moment if you are to achieve that.'
Jack van Ham, director of co-financing organization ICCO:
'This report is in line with the debate on modernizing development cooperation. It is a sound, thorough piece of work with a good analysis. But calling for a new organization like this NL-AID is jumping the gun rather. It would be strange for the Dutch government to give money directly to civil organizations in Africa through NL-AID. I think African governments would find that hard to understand. Imagine a situation where the American government funds NGOs in the Netherlands to enable them to criticize the Dutch government - that would be strange. It is better if that kind of work is left to civil organizations.
'But I am not worried by the conclusion that the system of co-financing organizations is becoming out-dated. The goal 45 years ago was to bolster capacity in the South, in developing countries. Now, in many cases that is no longer needed and organizations in the South can take over themselves. If that was not the case, you would be wondering whether all that aid had actually achieved anything. ICCO is leading the way in transferring funding and control to the South.'
Have traditional aid with less focus on fighting poverty and more on economic development, and which is to be restricted to ten countries, but at the same time put more effort into tackling global problems. I wonder how you can combine those two approaches.