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Getting development right: Results at the core of development cooperation

Denmark's Minister for Development Cooperation writes about results-orientated development assistance as an effective form of investment (01-02-2011)

During the past decades, development assistance has been seen as mainly an act of solidarity, a moral imperative and even an entitlement. This approach is over. Development assistance is an investment. It is about supporting our partners in creating tangible results, enabling ultimately developing countries to cope without development assistance. It is about fighting poverty through inclusive economic growth and employment generation. And it is in our own interest in terms of stability and security.

But how do we get it right? We need to change our understanding of development cooperation. In doing so, we need to address three fundamental issues. We need to analyze how development assistance can be used as a catalyst for genuine transformation. We need to realize that development cooperation is political and in our own interest. And we need more effective and results oriented development cooperation based on ownership, transparency and accountability.

Development cooperation as a catalyst for transformation

Firstly, in order to make a difference we need to continue striving at finding answers to the fundamental question “what moves societies forward”. We need to analyze why development assistance has failed as a catalyst for change in some countries and adjust accordingly. We need to constantly work on our ability to measure and document real results. We must know better what works and what doesn’t. To that end, I have recently launched a new international research program looking into the effects and outcomes of development cooperation.

We also need a much more frank and open debate about how to achieve tangible results through effective development cooperation. Our tax payers need to get engaged in the debate. I have therefore actively pursued a more broad debate on Denmark’s development cooperation with civil society, the private sector and research institutions. The past 6 months, I have visited more than 30 Danish high schools and have had the unique opportunity to discuss Denmark’s global commitment with around 10.000 young Danes. As the first generation born in a globalised world, they demonstrate a strong interest in international affairs and development issues. However, the knowledge of development cooperation – in Denmark as well in the EU – is often sketchy and to some extent influenced by myths. As minister for development cooperation, I am faced with a paradox, which an opinion poll recently made clear: While a huge majority of the Danish population is in favour of development assistance, only 38% of the Danes think development assistance makes any difference[1]. Considering that development funds are under pressure, we must address this paradox. We need to demonstrate to our tax payers that our investments lead to results. And we need better documentation, communication and justification. This is also the case for the development assistance provided by the European Commission.

Development is in our own interest

Secondly, we need to recognize that development is in our own interest. Development is a precondition for lasting peace and stability, and security is a precondition for development. Today’s challenges are global and they call for global answers. We have to combat extremism, terrorism, piracy, trafficking and migration. To do this we must support progress in terms of good governance, inclusive growth and employment. The rise of extremism is more likely in countries characterized by serious democratic shortcomings, instability and unemployment. Effective and democratic governments, inclusive growth and employment are in the interest of the citizens in developing countries and fragile states - and in the interest of our own citizens!  

Hence, the question is not should foreign policy, security policy and development policy go hand in hand. The question is how. The Lisbon Treaty gives us stronger coordination mechanisms. There is a great potential we need to take advantage of. The creation of the EU’s External Action Service is a golden opportunity. A close cooperation between the Commissioner for development, the other Commissioners and the High Representative is key. We all have a stake in making it happen: EU institutions and Member States. If we want a greater impact on the global scene, we must ensure that the EU is well organized and able to act in a timely manner. And internal processes must be kept lean and efficient, enabling the EU to speak with one strong voice.

The EU is fundamentally a freedom and peace project that grew out of war and totalitarianism and as such it is a role model for democratic and peaceful co-existence. It is based on values such as democracy, human rights and the free market. But they cannot be taken for granted. Therefore, we need to base our development cooperation on these values.

Results oriented development cooperation

Thirdly, we need to provide better and more results-oriented development assistance. This will require - among other things - resources, aid effectiveness, ownership, transparency and accountability.

On resources. We need to follow through on our promises despite difficult times. All Member States must live up to their commitments on provision of aid. Denmark has maintained its financial commitment; we will in 2011 provide 2 billion Euros in aid (0.84% of GNI). Member States that have still not reached 0.7% of GNI in official development assistance (ODA) should establish and adhere to national timetables to get there by 2015. The gap between promises and action must come to an end.

However, it’s not only a question of doing more, but doing it right. Development cooperation alone cannot guarantee results nor can aid amounts in itself be a benchmark for success. If development cooperation is ineffective, its size becomes less relevant and may even be harmful to the goal of sustainable development.

Turning to aid effectiveness, I believe that development assistance is most effective when it supports developing countries own priorities and when it is led by our developing partners. Denmark has moved away from traditional projects with traditional safeguards to mitigate risks. We are increasingly channeling our aid through the national systems of partner countries. This includes for instance our support to Afghanistan. Strengthening the integrity and capacity of country systems through using them is, I believe, the right approach. But it does of course pose new challenges not least in terms of fighting corruption. We risk that part of the funds end up in the wrong place. This is not acceptable, but we have to accept the risk is there. We need to require accountability from our partners. And we need to manage such risks and communicate openly about it rather than reverting to donor-lead approaches and implementation through parallel systems. We know which steps to take – they are spelled out in the Paris declaration and the Accra Agenda for Action - and we must continue to walk down that road. Several Member States are not there yet.

However, the aid effectiveness agenda and the bureaucracy surrounding it often seem overly focused on donor practices and less on how to measure and document results. Too much emphasis has been placed on procedures and national systems rather than rewarding results and outcomes. We need to go back to basics. Results must regain their place at the forefront of the aid effectiveness agenda. The international aid effectiveness bureaucracy must be streamlined and aid effectiveness mainstreamed.

Aid transparency is a natural element of a more results based approach to development. The public in both donor and partner countries must have access to information related to development assistance and its results. The public must be able to see where money has gone, as well as what it has achieved.  We need to demonstrate the relevance of development cooperation – be it bilateral Danish aid or European development aid provided by the Commission - to our tax payers.

Likewise, we need accountability from our partners. Governments and administrations must be held accountable by their citizens through democratic institutions. Development assistance is an investment, not an entitlement. Aid should empower not impede countries to unleash their potential for change. It should promote domestic resource mobilization, growth and employment and ultimately self-reliance. And we need a stronger recognition by partner countries of their own responsibility and accountability for achieving results. Local leadership is paramount. I want to support partner governments that have the desire and vision to change. 

In conclusion, we in the European Union need a change in our development approach. The days of giving development aid out of “bad conscience” are over. Instead, the new approach must use development cooperation as a catalyst for transformation. We must recognize that development cooperation is political and in our own interest. And development cooperation must be effective and results oriented. If we bring about these changes and get development right, the EU will be in a better position to fight poverty through inclusive economic growth and employment generation.