Unit Five – Aid and Development

There was so much to explore this week, and so many different lines of enquiry, that I have decided to focus on a select few areas rather than try to describe them all. One point to make before I start is about something that struck me during the reading – the much more personal and emotive language style that I encountered in many of the blogs. For example, William Easterley’s blog on the Financial Times website (2010) states that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have “tragically misused the world’s goodwill” –  a perhaps unnecessarily antagonistic way of describing the situation (or not, depending on your perspective). I wondered whether this was on balance a good or a bad thing. While it is true that in many cases this made the texts more engaging and easier to read, I was concerned that this might either make the information they conveyed more difficult to access – either by veiling the facts and arguments in opinion and rhetoric, or by the language being more convincing to me without the arguments themselves being any more accurate, meaning I couldn’t trust my own judgement. Finally, I realised that there isn’t such a clear distinction between the language in traditional academic texts and blog-based arguments anyway. For example, Greig, Hulme and Turner at one point describe “The attach on global poverty” (2007, 155), which seems an unexpectedly emotive way to describe the movement. Bringing this to my attention was definitely a good thing, and I concluded that as long as I kept this in mind, this shouldn’t be a real problem.

My initial reaction to the explorations I made this week was that it was good to look at some ‘solid’ statistics on what aid fund are spent and where, such as the very visually accessible information in Anup Shah’s blog (2011). My secondary reaction was disappointment at what the statistics told me about the trends in ODA contributions and their distribution.

My tertiary reaction, upon reading further blogs such as OneWorld’s Foreign Aid Guide (2011) was to realise that these figures couldn’t every really be considered to be representative, given that ODA  represents perhaps only 80% of the aid being distributed (ibid.). This is especially true given that I have no grounds for assuming that the way in which ODA money is spent and distributed is necessarily similar to the way in which the other 20% – coming from non-DAC countries – is spent. It is perhaps not the fault of the Development Assistance Committee if non-DAC countries do not provide statistics for them to base reporting on. However I couldn’t help feeling that this information could prove more interesting in terms of looking at ways to improve the development methodology, as the non-DAC nations tend to be ones that have been ‘developing’ more recently (and outside of the Western development bubble) and so might have more light to shed through both positive and negative practices.

Bearing all of this in mind, I was forced this week to reflect on the criticisms I read about the work of Aid agencies and NGOs, and consider what that meant for me as someone who works for Oxfam. This was not always a comfortable process, and is something that will probably continue for some time to come. During this process of self-reflection, I found that many of the conclusions I have reached in previous weeks (and that were described in my previous blogs) were all the more relevant, and in a way this was a positive experience as a result. For example, I was reminded strongly of Cornwall’s arguments against ‘buzzwords’ (2007) when looking at the evolvement of terms such as “preconditions for take-off” (Rostow 1960, cited in Greig et. al. 2007, 156) into “critical thresholds of human and economic development” (UNDP 2003 cited in ibid, 156).

In particular, I spent a lot of time considering Owen Barder’s (2010) analysis of the exponential proliferation of donor agencies, and the negative opinion he gives of the possibility of donors in any given area being able to create a purposeful dialogue working towards each specializing in their area of ‘comparative advantage’. This reminded me of the structural overhaul currently being implemented across the Oxfam confederation; working towards a Single Management Structure, or ‘SMS’ (Oxfam, 2010, 5). Here, different affiliates are working towards a streamlined and strengths-based cooperative effort in each country where more than one (or in many cases, several) affiliates are working in the same areas. In this case, they seem to be overcoming some of the difficulties Barder envisaged with comparing data and strengths, although obviously the comparison is warped by the fact that all the ‘agencies’ in this case are part of the same confederation, regardless of their independent beginnings. Overall I tended to agree with Barder’s assertion; focus on changing the incentives, rather than the division of labour, is an approach that I can be much more optimistic about. This is not just because I agree that it is far more likely to create sustainable improvements to the whole system of aid, but also because his emphasis on empowering developing-nation-citizens to drive the changes really struck a chord. To me, this seems like a positive step away from the kind of trusteeship that I was nervous of in my first blog, as described by  Thomas (2008, 41).

The tone of the Greig, Hulme and Turner (2007, Ch. 7) chapter suggested to me that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are to be seen as representative of current trends in development aid. In that case, their emphasis on the improvement of governance for all governments involved in development (ibid, 132) – another step away from trusteeship, and one that I was cautiously optimistic about – uncovers a hole in Barder’s assertion of incentive change through empowerment. My reasoning runs thus. According to Barder, if aid agencies are to move forward from the last half-century of mistakes and begin to enable sustainable change in developing countries, then the citizens of those nations must be supported to create the incentives for agencies to improve their ways of working. This support must come from the agencies themselves, and relies on developing nations already having systems of governance in place strong enough to allow for the incentives to be created. Empowering citizens to put pressure on their governments in order to create change seems to be to be a western-influenced model, and makes the basic assumption that the political structures and inclination exist within developing governments to be influenced by pressure from their citizens.  If one presumes that donor agencies are not going to be able to effectively support citizens to create incentives until they have improved their practices to a certain extent, then what is the catalyst for change in nations where the governance is not already in place?

As a means of stepping out of this paradox, one must presume that the pressure would have to come exogenously from developed-nation-citizens putting pressure on their own governments to change incentives. But tangible results (or lack of them) would then have to be provided in order to engage these interested, but absent, citizens. At which point the focus has shifted firmly onto results-based projects, and away from the empowerment of those citizens who were supposedly meant to be firmly centre stage.

Another key area of interest for me was the middle ground that the MDGs seem to strike between Modernisation and Dependency theory (Greig et. al. 158) Given that in an earlier blog I expressed a hope that the insight of Dependency theory – that each case of development is necessarily unique and should be treated as such – could be taken on board without it leading to the isolationist conclusions that Dependency theorists tended to draw, I tried to decide to what extent the more flexible view on the implementation of grand theory expressed by UNDP (2003, cited in ibid., 159) fulfils that hope.  My conclusion was that it is at least a step in the right direction, and it also goes some way towards mitigating a statement that jarred with the sympathies I expressed in my last blog towards Post-Development; that “Any development challenge  requires an ‘overarching framework ‘ to coordinate international energy” (Shetty, 2005 cited in ibid., 151).

On the whole, I chose to broaden Barder’s view on aid when – responding to Easterly’s criticisms (2010) – he said “we don’t know very much about whether and how aid promotes economic and development, but we do know that it enables people to live better lives while that transformation is taking place” (2010). No matter what form it takes, whether developmental or post-developmental, it is surely better that people are attempting to support improvements in the lives of others.


Barder, O., (2010), Aid Effectiveness; Where is it going, and what could you do? (online) http://media.owen.org/After%20Paris/player.html (accessed 10th November 2011)

Barder, O., (2010), UN Summit Roundup: Three Development Narratives (online) http://www.owen.org/blog/3815 (accessed 10th November 2010)

Cornwall, A. (2007), ‘Buzzwords and fuzzwords: deconstructing development discourse’. Development in Practice, 17(4): 471 – 485.

Easterly, W., Only trade-fuelled growth can help the world’s poor, (online) http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2010/09/21/guest-post-only-trade-fuelled-growth-can-help-the-worlds-poor/#axzz1dLYWoXWj  (accessed 10th November 2011)

Greig, A., Hulme, D. and Turner, M. (2007), Challenging global inequality: Development theory and practice in the 21st century. Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan.

Oxfam (2010), Oxfam Annual Report & Accounts 2009/10 (online) http://www.oxfam.org.uk/resources/downloads/reports/report_accounts09_10.pdf (accessed 10th November 2011).

OneWorld (2011), Foreign Aid Guide (online) http://uk.oneworld.net/guides/aid?gclid=CMvhg_7vsKoCFeILtAod23of7w (accessed 10th November 2011)

Shah, A. (2011), Foreign Aid for Development Assistance (online) http://www.globalissues.org/article/35/foreign-aid-development-assistance#ForeignAidNumbersinChartsandGraphs%29 (accessed 10th November 2011)

Thomas, A. (2000), ‘Meanings and Views of Development’, Poverty and Development into the 21st century, Allen, T., Thomas, A (eds), Oxford University Press, Oxford.


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