But Cameron’s case for aid was not ready-made for him. According to an IDS study on public perceptions of international development assistance in the UK, there is an established downwards trend in previously strong public support for aid, due in part to the current economic context and widespread perceptions of corruption in the use of aid. And these trends have become apparent across other donor countries as well. Perhaps because of this, Cameron made a forceful argument that aid needs to be used differently if it is to be effective: ‘getting aid right’ should be the starting point.
This is absolutely true. But it is not just about making aid more transparent and accountable, and ‘directed at those things which are quantifiable and measurable’, as Cameron seems to suggest. Fundamental as these characteristics are, making aid more effective is also about making it smarter – more politically aware, better attuned to context, and more pragmatic and flexible. This is critical especially if aid is to support political reform and more effective governance in Africa. State-building and ongoing processes of democratisation remain daunting challenges throughout the region, and they are particularly acute in conflict-afflicted states, which have become a priority in UK international assistance.
Cameron rightly argues that showing the results of aid is important. But this may be less straightforward than it sounds. As highlighted in the 2011 Word Development Report, a narrow focus on short-term and visible results – which donors tend to emphasise so that they can be accountable to their citizens – does not always provide the foundations to support effective, resilient and responsive states and institutions in the long term, an endeavour that is by nature more difficult to quantify and measure, and also more uncertain. In effect, many of the pathologies of aid, including, for example, the privileging of the form rather than the function of change (with an emphasis on formal institutions like elections or anti-corruption commissions without due concern about their substance and viability), and a reluctance to engage in riskier institution-building, are grounded in this tension between competing accountabilities to taxpayers on the one hand and to the governments and people of recipient countries on the other. (This challenge of competing expectations and multiple accountabilities is addressed in an ODI public event on 25 July 2011.)
Making aid smarter will entail, among other things, recognising this dilemma more explicitly and educating the public in donor countries more fully about how difficult, complex and long-term the promotion of sustainable change in many of these settings is. While accountability to taxpayers is obviously desirable, the challenge is to make domestic expectations fit with the needs and realities of assistance on the ground – a task that is made even more difficult in the face of an increasingly constrained context at home, with taxpayers unconvinced about the wisdom of promoting international development within the current fiscal environment (as per the criticisms Cameron received for being in Africa in the midst of a domestic scandal...).
In addition, smarter aid that can support processes of political and institutional reform in Africa calls for:
- Starting with the local context and building from what is there. This requires developing a nuanced understanding of the local dynamics at work, and tailoring interventions accordingly.
- Recognising more fully that the goals of promoting state-building and resilient democracies is not one and the same, as the Prime Minister’s remarks seem to assume. These twin endeavours do not constitute a linear sequence of cumulative or mutually reinforcing steps but may actually pull in opposite directions. Much as donors would like to assume that ‘all good things go together’, there will always be difficult dilemmas and trade-offs between different and equally compelling imperatives. Such tensions need to receive greater attention as the international community thinks about policy and practice. In the end, it is unlikely that all tensions will be resolved, but if they are better understood they can, at least, be managed more adequately.
- Moving away from normative prescriptions based on idealised models and blueprints (i.e. ‘best practice’) towards recognising multiple paths to high institutional performance grounded on contextual realities (i.e. ‘best fit’).
- Recognising more explicitly that development is not only a technical exercise but a fundamentally political one. This implies being realistic about what is politically and institutionally feasible and understanding the structures, relationships, interests, incentives and power relations that underpin reform processes.
- Recognising that promoting political reform and development is a long-term endeavour and that it takes time to get results. Progress is also not likely to be linear, so donors – and their respective publics – need to develop a higher tolerance for risks and setbacks.
As the Prime Minister points out, (a large) part of the responsibility for changing the future of the region rightfully lies with African leaders and their people. But the donor community has a responsibility too: is it ready to deliver smarter aid, and to face the difficult choices and changes that this is likely to entail at the domestic level as well?