The most important development aid conference of the year kicks off next week in Ghana. The Accra High Level Forum brings together ministers from 100 countries with the heads of bilateral and multilateral development agencies and a good number of civil society organisations. It is a meeting whose outcome will shape how billions of dollars will be spent and ultimately, how many lives can be saved, empowered and improved by spending development money.
The main issue on the agenda is to solve one of the knottiest problems in the aid world – how to ensure that development strategies are “owned” by the societies they are designed to benefit. The Accra Agenda for Action (pdf), the main planned output from next week’s conference, is the result - according to its drafters - of “one of the most extensive consultation processes ever held in the field of development cooperation”. In the run up to Accra, more than a dozen regional preparatory meetings and consultations and countless other meetings organised by OECD and civil society actors have been held in preparation for the meeting and this document.
Questions remain however. In particular, will Accra lead to citizens and not simply governments, shaping developing priorities and policies?
There is much that is encouraging in the document on this score. It commits its signatories (both North and South) to broadening “country-level policy dialogue on development”. As well as working more effectively with parliaments (rather than just the government executive), it commits donors to increasing “the capacity of all development actors – parliaments, central and local governments, CSOs, research institutes, media and the private sector – to take an active role in dialogue on development policy and role of aid in contribution to countries’ development objectives”.
It also has a key commitment to becoming “more accountable and transparent to our publics for results”. All this – and more - is important stuff and perhaps its enough. Perhaps the language of the Accra Agenda may be less important than how it becomes reflected in practice.
Recent history suggests there are major obstacles to be overcome.
Making development assistance more effective, and ensuring it is shaped by country need, were the two main objectives of the forerunner to this Accra conference. That meeting, in Paris in 2005, produced the “Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness”, a document that frames the thinking of thousands of civil servants worldwide involved in spending a great deal of development money.
What Paris fudged, however, was what “country ownership” means. In effect, it has meant government ownership. In practice, ordinary citizens have not been able to hold government expenditure of aid properly accountable, development priorities have often been set by a government elite. There is intense debate about whether the Paris agenda has in fact sometime achieved the opposite at time, particularly that it has led to an increased technocratisation and depoliticisation of development. And whether its focus on budget support – channelling large amounts of money through government – has increased corruption and patronage.
Despite this, at a time when there are many new aid actors (notably China, but also multiple private foundations), the basic idea of having a country led “aid architecture” that can better organise, harmonise and target aid better clearly has major arguments in its favour - not least because it can in theory provide ways for developing countries to hold aid efforts to some kind of account.
One key issue remains far too marginal at Accra however. Any attempt to improve country ownership and enhance government accountability depends on an informed public within developing countries. A public informed of what development policy is, what the options are and how they can shape it. An informed public at large, not only an informed and engaged civil society, critical that this is. Development policy rooted in country ownership needs to be rooted in public debate, and particularly a public debate that reflects the perspectives of those who have most to win or lose from development priorities.
The role of media in underpinning such debate was missing until the very last draft of the Accra Agenda for Action. This is despite the role of media and communication being highlighted credibly and persistently over many years in enhancing country ownership of development policies and in preparation for the conference. It is to the credit of the drafters that this has been addressed rapidly when representations have been made to them pointing this out.
One fundamental question remains however - will Accra usher in a new phase of development where the citizens most affected by development policy can both understand the policies designed to benefit them and have the opportunity to inform and shape them?
The answer to that question probably lies beyond Accra. In the meantime, those who argue that development policy rarely succeeds unless those it is designed to benefit can at least understand and have the opportunity to shape it, will need to get better engaged in processes like Accra in the future.