Two major development agencies with different priorities and emphases have both embarked on new strategic directions that emphasise that development action and support must revolve around government.
The new DFID/UKAID White Paper has a focus on so-called “failed states” and those in serious conflict situations. The prescription for these situations is to concentrate on helping those countries to build solid, stable Governments. The intended strategy to achieve this is a focus on the mechanisms required for effective governance and the skills and capacities of those responsible for making the government machinery work. By implication, though it is never clearly stated as such, there will be less emphasis on supporting civil society processes.
In his recent dialogue (and it was an excellent process) in Washington DC, Ambassador Goosby, the new head of PEPFAR, the multi-billion dollar USA International HIV/AIDS agency that sits as an independent process within the State Department, took a similar perspective. He stressed to an audience mainly composed of United States non-governmental organisations and private sector development agencies that the new PEPFAR strategy would focus on governments. These governments would not get the PEPFAR money but the main element of the strategy would be reinforcing and supporting the government role in each country for developing HIV/AIDS strategies, resourcing them, selecting partners, providing services, and administering quality standard and rules. The national health system would be strengthened. "Parallel" health systems would be frowned on - including those established by the development community.
At face value there are some very powerful arguments for this perspective.
After all, these are the governments of their countries. They should be respected, reinforced, and supported to do what they consider best in their countries. Be it democratic governance, government functioning, HIV/AIDS strategies, or health system strengthening - outsiders to that country should play a lesser role.
Strong, capable, functioning government provides an essential, long-term foundation for solid action across a range of issues. By pursuing this approach we are developing the base not addressing the ever-changing presenting issues in a vertical and unrelated manner.
The problem or challenge (let’s be positive) to this strategy revolves around innovation, creativity, and engagement.
There are huge problems to address – government-level corruption; uncertain election processes; ethnic group suspicion, loyalty, and conflict; censorship; HIV infection rates outstripping ARV availability by a huge margin (and it will become worse with the new sero-prevalence rules); and health systems that are in a terminal state in many countries.
These problems require innovation, creativity, and population-wide engagement if they are to be effectively addressed. And let's face it, those three qualities are not associated with government. There are exceptions, of course, but in general government is slower; more likely to assess, normalise, or provide supportive legislation for emerging processes that show promise; and - from Canada to New Zealand up to Russia and back down to Argentina - government is not exactly endowed with a first principle of openness and engagement.
Two quick examples.
The first is prompted by a contribution from the Treatment Action Group (TAG) at Ambassador Goosby's dialogue. For years, governments and the UN agencies that support them complained and lobbied and tried to move the pharmaceutical companies related to generic drug production of the ARVs. They got - essentially nowhere. Instead, a civil society group - TAG - achieved the desired outcome.
The second harkens back a little in history. It was not the government in Peru that "fixed" the Fujimori corruption issue but a powerful network of civil society actors. The same could be said for many countries, including in my own country where the government responded to civil society pressure to more firmly embed the provisions of the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand's national life - it did not lead.
So, I think we need to be careful in this rush to now focus on government. We must not fail to recognise that - be it health, HIV/AIDS, governance, or elections - the national life of a country, and the ability of that country to make progress requires a very complex set of relationships between government and civil society. It would be very disappointing if the end point of a government-focused strategy was to simply consolidate a set of failing policies and practices.
What do you think?