Author: James Deane, March 21 2011 The great and the good of the global development world have gathered in Accra, Ghana this week in an extremely largely tent. The giant marquee housing the 1,200 or so delegates for the main sessions of the Accra High Level Forum seemed fitting for a meeting designed to find some kind of organisational framework to the work of scores of developing country governments, dozens of bilateral donors and multilateral agencies and thousands of civil society organisations.
The conference ended after much wrangling, late night sessions in an agreement that will shape development policy over the next several years. Just how many years was one of the main points of contention, with the US and Japan in particular proving reluctant to sign up to time related targets for the implementation of the agreement.
It’s an odd meeting mixing the very worst and some of the best of the development sector. There have been many many extraordinarily tedious speeches - far too many of which have repeated arguments that have been heard a hundred times in the preparation of the main declaration from the meeting. There is a strange structure where much talking takes place in “roundtables”, for which civil society and other organisations meticulously prepare their inputs - while the real negotiations on the main declaration for the meeting take place almost entirely separately and behind closed doors.
We at the Trust co-organised a BBC World Debate last night where Zeinab Badawi through scintillating hosting shed more light in 90 minutes on issues of trade, investment and aid than I’d heard in the entire conference – a view repeated to me by several of the 400 or so delegates who attended it.
But this huge development sector deserves more credit than it often gets. There are important voices – not many of them here - who believe that aid is fundamentally corrupting, simply creates dependence and jobs for those who work in it, and who believe that investment and growth make it outdated. For those who don’t however – those who simply don’t believe that tax and private investment will for a long time meet the still massively insufficient health, education and all the other development priorities that money needs to be spent on – for those people, aid is needed. And if that’s the case, it needs to be organised.
And that’s what this meeting has ultimately succeeded in doing. It nearly didn’t – an apparently agreed statement drafted after much argument was rejected by Ministers arriving yesterday. The big issue was that Japan and the US– who to give them credit take the issue of whether they can really deliver what they sign up to more seriously than some others – were reluctant to sign up to anything that put time targets on anything that was agreed. Many developing countries, civil society organisations and EU countries felt that this made the statement little more than a set of aspirations. The EU made it clear that they wanted to go much further than this and have won at least some of their arguments.
The big issue at the meeting has been how to strengthen “democratic ownership” of development policy - combined with a host of measures designed to improve the accountability of development. That means development policy that is much more transparent, debated not simply by governments but by parliaments (a big feature of the meeting), with civil society organisations and in public. The importance of the media has been repeatedly stressed, although with little serious debate about what that means in practice (except for a lively if misnamed “media summit” - which I chaired - and which took place at the parallel civil society meeting). This new development agenda does seem fresher and more reflective of real world political realities than what has come before.
The biggest take-away for me - information lies right at the heart of this new development agenda. There is a mushrooming of new initiatives designed to improve greater public access to development information. Dfid launched today a new Aid Transparency Initiative committing a good bunch of donors to publish much better information on what they fund and why they fund it. There is a Publish What You Fund campaign by civil society, a host of budget monitoring initiatives, new organisations like www.aidinfo.org, (from the former head of development effectiveness at Dfid), and a new £50 million Dfid funded programme to improve statistics on development. “Information is power” is a hackneyed phrase that has echoed repeatedly in different places, different times and suggests that we might be entering a new information consciousness in the development field. And, perhaps most important of all and, the word "media" found it's way into the final document, the Accra Agenda for Action (thanks to lobbying from a few of us).
It’s possible that the development community is beginning to catch up with what many in information and communication have been saying for years - people can’t be involved in their own development unless they have access to information and a means to communicate. It’s possible too, that those - such as myself - who have traditionally concerned themselves with information and communication need to catch up with a very rapidly changing aid sector.
By James Deane, BBC Media Action