Three and a half thousand people have been meeting in Busan, South Korea to discuss the future of development assistance. The 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness is a tedious name for an important process - how best to organise the billions of dollars of development assistance designed to improve the lives of the poorest people on the planet.

Organising aid

Aid has traditionally been a disorganised process. Multiple donor organisations, often with their own pet priorities and projects, meeting multiple Ministers in recipient countries, and funding projects with little or no reference to the strategic priorities of the countries themselves has been standard practice for many years. A decade ago there was increasing recognition that this chaos did not work.

In 2004 and 2007 at earlier High Level Fora in Paris and Accra, donors and developing countries reached a deal. Donors would work with each other so that developing country Ministers could deal with a coordinated group, and this more coordinated group of donors would try to allocate their money to 'on budget' issues which the country itself had determined as its development priorities. Increasingly aid money took the form of budget support – direct funding of developing country government priorities. In return, developing countries would become more accountable for expenditure to their own citizens. Both developing and developed countries committed themselves to opening up their systems and publishing far more information about what money was being spent on what and with what purpose. Aid and budget transparency has increased as a result, and the Busan meeting has seen both Canada and the United States join the International Aid Transparency Initiative.

Aid has many critics but the choice of hosting this meeting in South Korea was designed as a riposte to some of them. In opening the conference, Lee Myung-bak, the South Korean President passionately paid tribute to the role aid had played in enabling his country’s transformation from a war-ravaged wreck to one of the most vibrant industrial and democratic success stories in the world – all in little more than a generation. Once dependent on foreign aid it is now an increasingly influential and confident aid donor, with an annual aid budget of $1 billion and a determination to substantially increase this in the future.

Mixing donor soup

  In Busan, this whole agenda has been tested as never before. It is facing two main challenges.

The first is that agreeing on a deal is a good deal easier than implementing it. The OECD DAC, to its credit, has been good at monitoring the implementation of earlier agreements and transparent when things have and haven't worked. There have been important successes; the number of developing countries with 'sound' national development strategies has tripled since 2005, and organised donor support to such strategies has improved.

Successes are, however, greatly outweighed by failures. Very limited progress has been made in enhancing the capacity of developing country citizens to subject aid spending or national development policies to real scrutiny. A progress report published by the DAC in advance of Busan argued that 'perhaps the most important overall finding on the implementation of the principles has been the clear and almost universal advance on making direct mutual accountability more transparent, balanced and effective.'

In total, only one out of nine key benchmarks set in Accra had been met. The background to Busan was one of failed implementation.

The second challenge is more serious still.

Despite the chill winds of the global economic crisis - felt keenly in the West and even more so by those dealing with high food and energy prices - the aid donors club is growing fast. South Korea is not the only new entrant on the scene; Brazil, India, China and other emerging economies are becoming powerful new donors themselves. Add to this mix the big private donors such as the Gates Foundation and the multiple global funding mechanisms, such as the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria and you get a rich soup of donors with very different agendas, cultures and ways of working.

A central tenet of the Busan meeting is that this expansion is badly needed. The Millennium Development Goals are off-track, the financial crisis is putting pressure on western development budgets, the problems of famine, food insecurity, energy and climate change make the need for development money ever greater. The main objective of Busan was to form a new 'Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation' which could accommodate new donor actors.

The potentially thankless task of getting common ground among this group has been one of the main challenges facing the OECD DAC in putting together an agreement. The process has struggled. A major aim of the organisers of this meeting was to get China to join this club. The hopes appeared to have been dashed when the Chinese delegation turned up and promptly announced that they would not be signing up to the declaration. In the event, China, Brazil and India and other emerging economies did agree that the declaration from the meeting would be a 'reference' for their development cooperation, but only on a voluntary basis.

There are many reasons why countries like China would not want to commit themselves more fully. It could ostensibly commit them to being far more transparent about where their money goes and for what purpose and intensify pressure to untie their aid. Besides, China like other emerging economies also see aid as south-south cooperation which historically has been politically rooted in efforts to counter Western hegemony. New models of 'triangular cooperation' are emerging, and a session at the conference on south-south cooperation focused on practical technical sharing of knowledge and experience between countries that had experienced similar development challenges. Nevertheless, joining what many developing countries see as a Western club of donors is a big step, particularly when so many of the rules of the club have been established before they have joined. Underpinning much of the debate at one fascinating conference session on the subject of Asian development cooperation was a deep-seated historical sense of national humiliation and a determination not to be in thrall to a weakened West regarded by many new actors as still bent on lecturing others on how to govern themselves.

All this raises a question. Is there a point when the search for consensus among an ever growing set of actors comes at the price of effectiveness? Many of the emerging economies are pursuing their own national interests in their aid policies, just as Western countries have done. The carefully calibrated language of the Busan outcome document is that of the lowest common denominator. It is short on clear, time-bound indicators and hard targets. It is focused on setting out rules that can be agreed by the widest range of actors.

The drafts and final text of the declaration coming out of Busan have been tailored to make it more palatable to new emerging economy entrants. The danger is that the broader the consensus, the shallower it becomes and that some important things get left out. Are we moving now towards a development consensus that everyone can live with, but few really buy into?

The cost of consensus

  I must declare an interest in this debate. The BBC World Service Trust - a charity founded by the BBC that is legally, financially and operationally independent - is not an advocacy organisation but it does strongly believe that a free and plural media, strong investigative, financial and other forms of journalism, and open and connected societies are key to making accountability work in society. The media is also key to making the issues discussed at Busan relevant to and resonant with those who have most to win or lose from the outcome of these debates.

Our work has focused significantly on working with developing country media to enable citizens in developing countries to question their political leaders in front of millions on radio and television. In the run up to Busan over the last couple of years, we have also helped organise meetings with and worked alongside the OECD DAC to document the evidence base supporting the role of media as an accountability mechanism and to highlight its relevance of media to aid effectiveness.

The word 'media' does not appear in the Busan declaration despite recommendations coming from the preparatory processes and synthesis of findings on ownership and accountability recognising its role.

There are defensible reasons for this, and too many negotiations of this kind insist on listing every group in society anyone feels are important (faith groups, youth groups, political parties and many other actors who have engaged actively in the Busan process are also not mentioned and are assumed, like media, to fall into an overall category of 'non-state actors'). However, important emphasis is placed on parliaments and civil society organisations as key sources of accountability. The omission of any language on a free media as a source of political accountability looks odd.

The Busan process is a response to how the world is changing, particularly given the growing influence and development role of emerging economies. It has as one of its central objectives to make 'domestic' accountability work better and to address the problem that development strategies are too disconnected from the people they are designed to benefit. Few disagree that media is important to this, so it seems strange and puzzling that it appears to be so overtly ignored.

It is more puzzling still given this meeting takes place in the winter following the Arab Spring. It is not just the reconfiguration of power moving from West to East and North to South that is happening. Growing access to new communication technologies and independent media is enabling more power to shift from governments to citizens, from institutions to networks, from elites to masses, from old to young. The Arab Spring was just the most powerful manifestation of this shift.

The Busan process places a strong and welcome emphasis on issues of aid transparency and opening up access to information on budgets and government processes and on the importance of civil society. It seems oblivious however to these wider changes in how citizens are holding their governments to account.

A central hypothesis remains behind the Busan process that it is governments that shape development and that the South Korean example of the past provides a blueprint for the future. Perhaps, but the world is changing in broader ways than the simple shifting of international economic and power balances. Information empowered people, companies and civil societies are increasingly driving change. A central focus on the role of the state makes sense, particularly when this process is so focused on fragile and conflict affected states - a strong case for this was certainly made by President Paul Kagame of Rwanda in his keynote address to the conference. However, present that case to the citizens of many of the Arab Spring countries and you may get a very different perspective.

The Busan process is an attempt to reach a consensus, a consensus where commitments to support the more tricky and political elements of development assistance - such as free media and a right to information - might appear problematic. The consequence is a declaration that seems consensual and reasonable, one bent on accommodating as many actors as possible. Look here for a technical consensus on development effectiveness and you will find it. Look for a vision of development effectiveness, particularly a vision rooted in the creativity and innovation with which citizens are taking control over their own futures and lives around the world and you will look in vain.

This criticism is not aimed at those organising this meeting and those facilitating the process in the OECD DAC I know are not the dry technocrats implied here. The technicality and limitations of the declaration are the inevitable cost of achieving an ever broader consensus.

The West has often messed up its development assistance. It has used aid to advance its own economic and political interests, lectured and hectored aid recipients and sometimes got things badly wrong. I would argue that it has also tried to learn from its mistakes and that, for all its problems, the aid effectiveness agreements of Paris and Accra were essentially progressive ones aimed at rectifying the mistakes of the past. They were designed to put developing countries in the driving seat, and to ensure that the accountability relationship was downwards to citizens, not upwards to donors.

That seems a precious achievement but it is built on a consensus that can only be stretched so far. The aid effectiveness agenda has achieved much that is important and all of that has been achieved through consensus. The absence of any language about the importance of a free media from the document may be telling us something about the cost of such a consensus. At some point this may become a price that stops being worth paying.

There were real achievements at this meeting. The benefits of consensus were clear - a fresh energy around aid transparency, a new and important agreement on aid to fragile states and the creation of a more global aid framework capable of accommodating very diverse aid actors.

The costs are less clear, but to this observer very real. We should get better at counting them.

James Deane is the Director of Policy at the BBC World Service Trust. The BBC World Service Trust is an international development charity which is supported by but operationally independent of the BBC. His views should not be taken to represent those of the BBC.