Does development aid have a future?

Swedish development assistance is the largest in the world, in relation to gross national income. Sweden also receives by far the highest rating in terms of commitment to development in other countries, the so-called Commitment to Development Index (CDI). Can there really be reason to question the future of development aid?

In Sweden, development assistance, with a few exceptions, has not been questioned politically since it started about 60 years ago. The so-called 1% target has formed a solid basis and recurring opinion polls have shown that there has been popular support for development assistance. But in recent years, more critical voices have been raised and two parliamentary parties, M and SD, have now reduced aid as part of their programs.

In the debate, of course, there has always been criticism of individual projects and programs as well as of support for certain countries. Governments and Sida have taken note of this, but have continued to claim that development assistance generally yields positive results and should continue and increase in scope. An important support has always been given by representatives of the so-called civil society, ie. NGOs that are active in development aid work and are largely financed by state aid. A very large number of evaluations have been made of Swedish development assistance (it is probably the most evaluated appropriation item in the central government budget) and as a whole, these evaluations have often found positive results and they have never questioned development assistance as such. The Expert Group on Development Aid (EBA) has recently presented a study of Sida’s evaluations (Goal picture and mechanism: What do evaluations say about Swedish development assistance initiatives’ goal fulfillment? by Markus Burman, EBA report 2020: 02) which states that the evaluations almost always conclude that the effort has achieved its goals, but that these conclusions about goal fulfillment are generally not reliable.

But now something has happened that changes the basis for Swedish (and also international) aid, namely the experience of the Western world’s total failure in the enormous support over 20 years, for the development of a democratic state in Afghanistan. This is not really a new insight, in a Swedish government inquiry presented in 2017 (SOU 2017: 16) it was concluded that the fulfillment of development assistance goals as a whole was low. But despite this, aid continued in the same way as before.

EBA has presented a report on Swedish aid to Afghanistan by Adam Pain: Punching Above its Weight or Running with the Crowd? Lessons from Sweden’s Development Cooperation with Afghanistan 2002-2020. This is the first study that looks at Swedish development assistance as a whole throughout the period and it draws many important conclusions that should lead to a real rethinking by the government and Sida. But not only in the case of Afghanistan, but also in terms of aid as a whole.

Afghanistan is an extreme example, due to the situation in the country and the extensive aid. It has been Sweden’s largest recipient country in recent years, but still Sweden has accounted for only about 1% of total development assistance, which is a smaller proportion than in most other recipient countries. The starting point for the report is that international aid to Afghanistan is designed around a “substantialist” agenda. It is an agenda characterized by trying to achieve general objectives, e.g. poverty reduction, human rights, gender equality and democratic governance. This is something that has characterized Swedish development assistance to all major recipient countries and has been formulated in “country strategies” for each country. Adam Pain has studied the five country strategies that Sweden has prepared for Afghanistan since 2002. His conclusion is that the objectives in these have been more ambitious and imaginative than strategic and that the ambitions have increased over time. Not even the latest strategy from April 2021 differs much from the previous ones, despite the fact that the US plans for military withdrawal were well known at the time.

But even if  Afghanistan is special, the Swedish government has formulated so-called country strategies with unrealistic wish lists for many countries and regions year after year, without drawing significant conclusions about the effectiveness of aid and without the necessary changes in strategies. To an outsider, these strategy papers are a mystery, states Adam Pain. Jenny Nordberg writes about the same phenomenon with regard to Ethiopia ( Sweden’s aid goes against the experts’ advice, SvD 3/10 2021). Sweden’s long-term strategies continue to be optimistic (one could say naive). The starting point is the fine overall goals and the obvious needs. However, less consideration is given to how the goals can be achieved in the difficult situations that exist in the countries.

An important reason for these contradictions is that strategic thinking is not a priority. The incentives for those who determine the direction of development assistance and those who prepare the documents are mainly determined by Swedish domestic policy purposes (to show commitment to goals that are advocated by different Swedish interests) and by the press to increase payments that follow from the 1% target. Demonstrating problems and difficulties is not popular, on the contrary, the direction of development aid is constantly defended.

An expression of this is how Sida formulates the results of its operations. The latest annual report for 2020 gives a long list of examples of what is meant by positive results. In addition, almost all are quantified, which gives the impression of clear success. But most so-called results are activities or “inputs” that Sida financed. It is about e.g. education and access to different types of infrastructure (mainly in social areas, media, legal systems, etc.). Almost no examples are given of real results, in relation to the goals. It is admittedly difficult to measure such results, but then it should also be clarified. In addition, it should be mentioned that it is impossible to give any accuracy in the results of Swedish aid in particular. 

One trend, since 2013 when the country strategies were replaced by so-called result strategies, is an increased focus on a simplified result analysis based on quantitative goals and linear causal relationships. The strategic analysis of the conditions for development assistance in the countries has been given less and less space in the strategies. This is obvious in Afghanistan and the same phenomenon was found in a study of aid to Cambodia that I participated in ( Supporting State-Building for Democracy Aid to Cambodia ?, EBA report 2019: 03) . Similar conclusions have also been drawn by Göran Hydén in some African countries ( Democracy in African Governance: Seeing and Doing it Differently, EBA report 2019: 09) .

A cornerstone of Swedish long-term development assistance has been support for building up the recipient countries’ state apparatus, in the direction of more efficient and democratic administration. This is a reasonable starting point because the goals set, for democracy, economic development, poverty reduction and now, not least, sustainable development for climate and environment, require the development of effective (and according to many; democratically governed) state institutions. A first criticism of development aid should rather be that too little resources are invested in state development. The majority has gone to individual projects and programs with their own, limited, goals. It is also this development assistance that has primarily been evaluated and led to the conclusions about the development assistance’s good effects. But this applies to isolated effects at project or program level, not effects at national level. A well-known paradox in development assistance is that positive effects at the micro level often do not lead to the equivalent at the macro level and that the relationship is sometimes the opposite.

The project / program assistance is partly an expression of all donors’ interest in controlling implementation and follow-up and in being able to present results for home opinion. It builds its own organization in the recipient countries, often without connection to the country’s own systems and strategies. It has sometimes been criticized for being a form of neo-colonialism, which is not entirely wrong, although of course it is rejected by donors’ representatives.

The idea of ​​”country strategies” for each major recipient country is basically correct. The reason is that the donor must understand the environment around the aid in each country. Project analyzes are not enough. But it is also reasonable to ask whether little Sweden can really have a strategy for another (usually larger) country. We hardly have it for our own country, at least not for a period as long as 5 years, which is the normal period for the country strategies. Of course, Swedish development assistance cannot take responsibility for a country’s overall development, but it is necessary to analyze the whole in order to understand the effects of the grants. This applies in particular to the role of the state apparatus, regardless of whether the assistance is channeled to the state or to other actors in society.

The latter is important, as Western donors’ confidence in the state apparatus in the recipient countries, on good grounds, has fallen sharply over the past decade. A common reaction has been to reduce aid via the state and increase aid via non-governmental organizations. It can be an effective form of aid to strengthen civil society, but it is not enough for long-term sustainable aid at national level (ie aid that creates positive effects that remain long after the aid has ended). There are many types of NGOs but not even the very best can replace the state and in the respects that they actually do, e.g. when they take over responsibility for health care and education, new problems arise by creating space for the state to prioritize other expenditures: In this way, development aid risks financing completely different areas than those intended, not least widespread corruption (this is what usually called fungibility in aid).

Sweden / Sida is known as a donor who takes this seriously and bases its assistance on thorough analyzes of political, economic and social conditions in recipient countries. In some cases, more in-depth analyzes of the power relations in societies have also been made. But the problems are, partly that there has been a reduced emphasis in recent years and above all that the analyzes have had limited significance for the focus of development assistance. This is despite the fact that there is plenty of knowledge, among Swedish and international researchers and, more importantly, among domestic researchers in the recipient countries (who have often received support through Sida). Lack of knowledge is thus not the main problem, but it is about a changed Swedish policy.

Increased diversity in the target structure is part of the change. In the beginning of development assistance, poverty reduction was the clear goal. Later, a large number of specific goals were added and now the so-called Agenda 2030 applies, with 17 overall goals and 169 sub-goals. There have been good reasons for this development, but it creates problems for the implementation and follow-up of development assistance. It leads to a fragmentation of aid in different areas, which is advocated by different interests in the donor countries, and a general follow-up at country level is made more difficult and given lower priority.

Another change is that democracy and human rights have become an overarching factor in almost all long-term aid. It may seem sensible, but the problem is that it is based on a model that has applied in Western democracies and, for Sweden, on the specific Swedish experiences. One consequence of this is that goal formulations and follow-up have focused on certain (often quantitative) indicators and that too little emphasis has been placed on local structures and processes. It lies behind the unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved through e.g. capacity building in the public sector.

One conclusion is that Western aid for democracy has often failed because donors have tried to transfer their own systems and values, without sufficient knowledge of the specific situation of each individual recipient country. Capacity building has mainly been interpreted as knowledge transfer, not as learning about the local context. But the liberal model of democracy has no historical basis in e.g. Africa and does not work to copy. If Western democracy aid is to succeed, new thinking is needed. It must be based on a better understanding of local structures and the demand for democracy that exists in most recipient countries. Hydén believes, in the above-mentioned study, that development assistance must be seen in an investment perspective rather than in an administrative project / program perspective. This means that donors must become more involved in local processes through close contact with local actors in civil society and the private sector. It is also something that requires a more long-term perspective than the normal donor perspective, which is about 1-3 years (slightly longer for Sida).

For long-term aid to be effective and sustainable, states must be strengthened. This does not only mean increasing revenues and capacity, but resources must be used better, with a focus on social and economic infrastructure and adaptation to climate change. A crucial factor is to limit corruption. It is not just about waste of resources, but even more about power relations at all levels of society. Aid has paid far too little attention to corruption. Control in individual projects has been tightened, but corruption is part of the entire social system. To fight corruption, it is necessary to understand how it works in different situations and to identify actors and means that can limit it. It can be about local administration, NGOs and private companies. On the other hand, reforms within the central state apparatus have often been ineffective (eg anti-corruption authorities).

What, then, is the conclusion: can Western aid contribute to long-term improvements at all through support for state structures and institutions? I do not think there is an unequivocal answer, it depends on the situation in each individual country. In some countries, the answer is undoubtedly no! In such cases, donors must understand this and draw the consequences by stopping providing such assistance. Afghanistan has long been a country where a fairly simple analysis should have led to this, but on the contrary, aid has continued and expanded. There are several reasons for this. First and foremost, development aid is part of international policy, which is governed by goals other than the stated development goals. In Afghanistan, it was linked to a military operation and the aid, despite its size, was an appendix that partly aimed to motivate and defend the military efforts.

Perhaps the most important first step is to give up the utopian aid goals, as William Easterly suggested in his famous book The White Man’s Burden. But the trend has been in the opposite direction, towards the 169 “Global Development Goals” in Agenda 2030. No one dares to question it because this agenda motivates the entire development assistance industry. These are good goals and good underlying interests, but they are utopian goals, especially if everyone is to be achieved everywhere. It is this idea that makes aid often fail.

Fine goals are of course important for motivating aid, but what happens if the insight is spread that they are not realistic? Well, support for aid is declining and that is exactly what is happening now. There is an urgent need for politicians and experts to agree on a clear message about what aid can do and, more importantly, what it cannot do. Firstly, it must be understood that there are two completely different types of aid: short-term, humanitarian and long-term, development-oriented. Short-term assistance aims to alleviate suffering in disaster situations. It is important and is rarely questioned. But it is short-term and does not aim at sustainable development. It is the type of aid that is directly linked to human needs. But emergency aid cannot stop hunger and poverty, as it does not aim to combat the root causes.

Unfortunately, the countries affected by disasters are most often the countries with the worst conditions for long-term sustainable development. This leads to more aid perpetuating aid dependency, as has been the case in Afghanistan. There is no easy way out of this dilemma. Disaster relief must always be available, but it must not be the case that all aid becomes emergency aid, with the motive that the aid should go where there is the greatest need. A clearer distinction should be made between the two types of assistance. It must be possible to provide humanitarian aid to all countries, regardless of the regime’s legitimacy and roots. The necessary knowledge is mainly about logistics. Multilateral bodies are probably best suited for this type of assistance. 

The long-term assistance, on the other hand, requires deep knowledge of the environment in the country and may be better suited for bilateral efforts. It is also not possible to set general conditions for democracy, human rights or reduced corruption, in order for countries to receive aid. All experience shows that this fails, even if all donors are behind it (which is not normally the case). Aid must change, towards more flexible, system-oriented work, based on thorough local knowledge.

Aid must have a future, but it requires new thinking in several respects. Some elements in this for Sweden are:

-Leave the so-called one percent target. Disbursements must not be a goal for development assistance, it creates incorrect incentives and leads to poorer decisions and less efficiency in achieving goals in the contexts in which development assistance operates. Sweden should continue to have significant development assistance payments, but they can be decided based on overall plans for longer periods, with great flexibility depending on developments in different recipient countries.

– Make a clear distinction between humanitarian aid and long-term development aid. The responsibility for implementation should lie with two different authorities.

– Base long-term bilateral assistance on country strategies for a limited number of countries. The strategies must be based on deep knowledge of the situation in the countries and analyzes that are updated annually and carried out by independent researchers from different countries and in different areas. Local knowledge should be given great importance.

– The goals should be formulated clearly and specifically (and realistically) for each country strategy, not in general terms (eg ‘democracy’ or ‘gender equality’). Sweden / Sida should clarify its role in each country, depending on the situation in the country, Swedish resources and other donor initiatives in the country.

– Continuous follow-up should be done of the strategies with regard to the added value of the Swedish efforts in the country’s overall development. Swedish development assistance must be able to be used in different ways: as larger programs or more limited projects. But the results must be assessed for the country as a whole (what is usually called impact in the context of evaluation) and corruption must be seen as an overall risk, not just as a risk to the Swedish efforts.


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