Here’s how aid works:
1) Someone pays for it. We call this person or entity a “donor.”
2) Someone else implements it. We call this person or entity an “aid provider” – usually, but not necessarily and NGO.
3) And someone else receives what the first one pays for and the second one implements. We call this person the “beneficiary”, usually for lack of a better term.
Some of us go on about the different kinds of donors, the extent to which their level of understanding and their motivations matter, what their rights are or should be in the grand scheme of things, or the extent to which they should be allowed to meddle in the workings of aid providers.
Some of us go on stridently about the different kinds of aid providers: Who should or shouldn’t be allowed to be one, what it takes to be a good one, the extent to which aid providers are or aren’t unduly influenced by the motivations of their donors, or the extent to which they should be required to share certain kinds of information.
Some of us go on passionately about the beneficiaries. What their rights are, what they can reasonably expect from donors and aid providers, what their capacities are, and the extent to which they have a role to play in the overall picture of aid.
These are vigorous, often vehement debates. And rightly so, as they all touch on important issues.
But just so that we’re all clear, none – not one – of these debates challenges the basic aid formula. None of these debates address in any substantial way the global reality of aid: that it is a giant ménage à trois between donors, aid providers and beneficiaries, each of whom approaches relationship with diverse needs and expectations, and where the aid providers’ role is primarily brokering the relationship between donors and beneficiaries.
And so you’ll forgive me, gentle reader, when I come off as more than just a tiny bit jaded with the rhetoric coming out of, say, the Cannes G20 summit. Or statements from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation about their “innovative financing.” Or when I juxtapose what comes up when I click “draft agenda” for this year’s HLF-4 in Busan against the stated purpose of the forum “…review global progress in improving the impact and value for money of development aid and make new commitments to further ensure that aid helps reduce poverty…”
I get jaded because none of these forums or discussions addresses the basic nature of the aid formula. The ménage à trois. What the Gates Foundation calls “innovative financing”, isn’t. It’s simply the latest attempt to modify the parameters of how traditional donors work and maybe change up the kinds of strings attached to donor funding. It’s also the basis for a lot of HRI-style workshops and meetings and junkets. If you want truly innovative financing for foreign aid, find a way to pay for it that doesn’t involve donors. Simple as that.
Or bringing together 2,000 representatives from around the world to review the Paris and Accra declarations for the purpose of making development aid more effective. Am I the only one who reads “High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness” as an oxymoron on multiple levels? For one, 2,000… coming together… to make progress on aid effectiveness… wait.. what? For another, the key to aid effectiveness is not something about the legal frameworks of a bunch of developed countries. This is focus on but one of the members of the torrid little aid ménage à trois. You want aid effectiveness on some kind of global scale, you have to deal with all three.
If you want to truly change the way aid works, you need to find a way to change the ménage à trois formula. PPP and CSR are just new kinds of donors. Mixing bilateral aid with traditional development aid, government to government capacity-building, and all of that simply adds complexity around who is a donor, who is a provider, and who is a beneficiary at the ground level. Technological and programmatic innovations (awesome as they might be) simply re-tool the ways in which aid providers continue business as usual. Humanitarian accountability and basic good process are “musts” (and I sincerely believe that they make aid better). But let’s not delude ourselves into believing that they confer any real change in status to the benefiaries of aid.
You want to be “game changing”? Find a way to change up the ménage à trois. Otherwise, you’re simply using new words to describe the same ol’.