Is the UK meeting its international commitments on aid effectiveness?

3 September 2008
Nick Highton
Comment
The UK’s progress report on aid effectiveness, which received its official launch by DFID Ministers 1 September, must count as one of the more readable offerings sitting on the table this week in Accra, as ministers from over 100 counties gather to take stock of progress against the Paris Declaration on aid effectiveness. For this accomplishment alone it deserves to be welcomed.

The progress report carries two hugely important messages – in appropriately visible script on the very first and last pages of this glossy 21 page document. Firstly, Accra is not just about the technicalities of an international agreement of interest only to aid practitioners. It is about the effectiveness of the international system as a whole. Secondly, the Paris Declaration is not just a technical agreement - it is a political agenda for action. As such, the report is not primarily aimed at aid agencies and their staff; rather, it is intended to be read - and judged by - politicians, civil society, custodians of tax payers’ money in rich countries (finance ministries and audit institutions) and private foundations. We see laid out very clearly how, for example, the temptation to use stand alone project implementation units by agencies to make sure funds are `well spent` actually results in less effective aid by ‘balkanising’ country systems. In the aid business, getting value for money is not always what it seems.

This point, and many others like it, may be well understood by aid practitioners but it needs to get across to a much wider audience, especially in a difficult economic climate where aid budgets are likely to come under greater pressure. The progress report does a good job of this, by explaining what aid effectiveness is about and why it matters. In fact, it makes the argument in unusually accessible language - backed up by real life examples from the ground. One wonders, though, how representative these examples really are.       

A second reason to welcome this report is for the transparency (and precedence) it provides. While the Paris Declaration Monitoring Survey includes an appendix that lists aggregated scores for each participating donor, studies commissioned to measure progress are focused on recipient countries rather than donors. While there are clear reasons why country-level data is essential (the purpose of Paris is after all to increase development results on the ground), data on individual donor performance is also essential to make aid agencies more accountable.

Although some of the examples given in the report may seem selective (though they certainly make for a fascinating read) the document is reasonably candid about the UK`s successes and shortcomings in meeting the Paris declaration. We see that UK progress in meeting the commitments is generally good, but that there are important areas of weakness – especially important for an agency (DFID) claiming to act as `model` of aid effectiveness for the world to follow. For example, DFID’s use of country financial and procurement systems is actually falling – without clear explanation. And, while the UK is pushing for stronger commitments on predictability (disbursing aid on schedule) at Accra, DFID apparently faces `bottlenecks` in meeting even its existing – and relatively unstretching -  commitments on predictability.  

Marks then on meeting the Paris commitments? Let’s say: good, but could do better. As an example of transparency for other agencies to follow? Excellent.  

For further discussions visit ODI on…. Third High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Accra.

Nick Highton