Unpicking The 0.7% Aid Target

Original posted on Developed Africa

For many years campaigners have fought to set the minimum level of aid spending in the UK at 0.7%. This target was promised by the Cameron government but has yet to be delivered leading many to criticise the current UK government. But where exactly does the figure 0.7% come from and why has it become such a focused target on third sector pressure?

Richard Thomas at African Arguments has recently written a fascinating piece on the history of this target. This particular aspect of the aid agenda stems from the Pearson Commission, a World Bank investigation into the history and future of aid led by Nobel Prize winner Lester Pearson. In 1969, the report ‘Partners in Development’ was released. As Thomas explains it, this report set out a new paradigm for aid:

Pearson concluded that initially 0.7% should be official (government) aid flows and that approximately 0.3% should come from the private sector. The first part of this formula (0.7%) was adopted by the UN and later by the major donor countries.  Pearson expected that this ratio of 2:1 (government: private) would, within two decades, be reversed. He felt that a more natural relationship was 0.3% from government funded aid flows and approximately 0.7% or more from the private sector. Reducing poverty in Africa and Asia depended on investment, trade, better health and education, adding value locally to primary products etc. Not, in other words giving developing countries fish (aid), but giving ‘them’ a fishing rod so that they could develop themselves.

Private investment would flow, they believed, when internal capacity and investment-friendly institutions had been developed – partly by aid. But it was necessary to begin with a front loaded ‘Marshall plan’ approach, hence the 0.7%. The long term need for 0.3% was to help build and sustain local capacity.”

Private sector investment was always intended to become the major influence in development models. The huge amount of aid assistance currently offered is, as Thomas describes it, a misunderstanding of what Pearson recommended for long-term development in the Global South. Thomas argues that an enshrined governmental aid budget of 0.7% will almost inevitably fuel some of the major criticisms of aid – for instance, the problem of dependency and bad budgeting in recipient countries.

Unlike some critics, Thomas argues that cutting the aid budget isn’t the answer; promoting greater private sector investment is.

The piece on African Arguments continues:

A new Paradigm for Aid and Development assistance is needed. The 0.7% model encourages donors to focus on quantity rather than quality and discourages the kinds of reforms which would engender sustainable growth. The Chinese alternative, which is just as exploitative as the western neo-liberal model, appeals to many African elites who are neither reformist nor pro-poor.

Pearson’s expectation that the educational and structural investments achieved by aid would trigger increasing investment and trade has, thanks to the Chinese, been realised (although probably not in ways he expected). But bulk or wholesale aid, whether 0.7 or 0.3, is no longer the key to African development. It could be argued that small scale initiatives which act as a catalyst (adjusting the ‘rules of the game’, removing log-jams, increasing the role and influence of civil society, improving the capacity to audit flows of funds etc) are both cheaper and much more useful to developing countries in the long run.”

Governmental aid might serve a purpose but it is not the real solution to long-term development. The 0.7% debate should be diverted to reflect this – the UK government can and should fight for greater investment from British private sector organisations, bringing beneficial partnerships to everyone involved.

Interview | Javie Ssozi – Helping Ugandan voices reclaim the legacy of the LRA war

Think Africa Press recently published a very thorough, balanced and well-written analysis of the Kony2012 furore and what it means for humanitarian organisations and their future campaigns – read it in full here. There was one section that really got my attention,

Kony2012 was unrivalled in its spread as a viral campaign and, in the UK, donations to international aid NGOs have been rising. But at the same time, these same strategies are possibly undermining the cultivation of more concerted, long-term commitments. (Kony2012 itself did not even sustain interest long enough to mobilise action for its Cover the Night campaign the next month.)

While I broadly embrace the sentiment that, long-term, the ‘success’ of the campaign will be seen in an entirely different light I think that this point of view misses a very important part of the video’s audience – Ugandans.

The website UgandaSpeaks.com was set up in the aftermath of Invisible Children’s campaign. As the Think Africa Press article points out, the film had very little Ugandan input, focusing much more on the IC director, Jason Russell. For obvious reasons, many Ugandans were incensed by having their narrative, their issue, taken off their hands and presented to the world as a problem that revolves around the actions of North Americans. The founders of UgandaSpeaks wanted to combat that.

I caught up with Javie Ssozi, one of the co-founders of the site, to get some more information on the project.

Javie Ssozi

UgandaSpeaks was prompted by the KONY2012 phenomenon, a topic which has garnered an unbelievable amount of attention as well as a huge backlash from the development blogosphere and Ugandan journalists and activists. What do you think UgandaSpeaks can add to this discussion?

What UgandaSpeaks adds to the topic is not only valid arguments about the subject but also voices of Ugandans who have more experience in the legacy of the war in the North.  

There seem to be quite a lot of people involved in founding the site: who are they and how did you all come together?

The people who are involved in UgandaSpeaks are:

  1. Javie Ssozi
  2. Rosebell Kagumire
  3. Maureen Agena
  4. Echwalu Edward
  5. Ole Tangen

All of these people have had experience covering news stories or doing social work in Northern Uganda where Joseph Kony and the LRA committed terrible atrocities.

Who is running things, day to day?

We all work as a team even though myself (Javie) does most of the work related to the website. 

How many submissions have you had so far? Are Ugandans excited about this initiative?

Yes, many Ugandan journalists, storytellers and social workers have strong interest in the initiative. In fact, many young people who have just started their careers in storytelling and journalism have asked to join the UgandaSpeaks team. Many other Ugandans have shown support through retweeting and sharing our stories on Facebook and other social networks. 

A lot of the people behind UgandaSpeaks a fairly well known journalists and activists – who will be overseeing the film production aspect of your project?

 Javie Ssozi and Maureen Agena oversaw the production of the film.

Recently, there has been something of a backlash (see here) against the rhetoric of ‘telling positive stories about Africa’ – does a project like UgandaSpeaks go beyond a marketing/advertising push? How?

Actually the approach that UgandaSpeaks takes is more personal story driven. Our narrative takes shape from the experience of the teller. For example we do want to tell positive stories about Africa but also we realize that people have challenges. So, we allow for people to show both sides of their stories. 

Is your aim to place Ugandan authored stories about Kony in the international press or the national press?

I think we have already done this. But our aim is to share the stories of the people who have first hand information about what happened in Northern Uganda. Eventually we shall cover stories about all sorts of people and things around Uganda depending on our budget. 

Who is your audience and why are they your audience?

Our Audience on the KONY2012 topic is mainly people from the west because they know so little about Uganda. We just want to educate them and perhaps in doing so we shall recapture the narrative that KONY2012 video puts across. 

Have you had any approaches by Ugandan political figures? If not, do you think they staying away from this topic because of pressures from international aid/development organisations?

Eventually the Prime Minister of Uganda (Amama Mbabazi) did two YouTube videos on the topic. I  think our government officials are not technically agile as we (UgandaSpeaks/ independent netizens) are but also I think they have to follow some kind of procedure.

How do you feel about aid/development? Does it have it’s place or is it time to replace it with large-scale trade initiatives?

Aid is good because in one way or another it ends up helping someone somewhere. However, aid is NOT sustainable. Promoting entrepreneurship and trade would be a more sustainable way of supporting people in the developing countries. 

Is there a middle ground in the aid vs trade debate?
Since (most of) the aid is always ending up in the hands of people who will either miss use it or embezzle it, I think trade would be the way to go. And there are already a number of initiatives promoting trade between Uganda and the rest of the world. I believe more of these initiative would bring the ultimate change we need – and perhaps one day we shall be like China! This country has the potential to supply 3% or even more than that of the world’s food.

Wicked Problems

Wicked problems have these features: It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible. In a word: it’s a mess.

Sound familiar?

This is an extract from a rather brilliant speech by Jay Rosen of NYU which is well worth reading in full. The speech isn’t about development. It’s about the difficulties that journalism has with coverage of wicked problems (of course this can be applied to development as well). But the above quote is as succinct description of the difficulties surrounding the development industry as I’ve seen.

The following extract is from a little later in the speech.

…it is characteristic of wicked problems that key stakeholders define the problem differently. That plurality of frames is inevitable. But what’s not inevitable is the stakeholders’ mutual ignorance of each other’s incompatible starting points. There is no kumbaya moment. You never get everyone on the same page. Consensus? You must be kidding. In dealing with wicked problems these are vain hopes, signs of the stupid. What’s possible is a world where different stakeholders “get” that the world looks different to people who hold different stakes.

It seems to me that many of the big names in development are pretty combative iconoclasts. You have the heavy hitting sceptics and the evangelizing aid-fanatics and the increasingly self-righteous corporatists who dismiss the entire debate as missing the point. There are many, many divisions, constantly highlighted: economists vs political scientists, local vs international stakeholders, Global North vs Global South, academia vs practitioners… The list goes on and on.

Personally, I find it a lot more difficult to think of a comparable list of alliances. In terms of rhetoric and dialogue it seems that development types are a lot better at fighting than they are at incubating more sympathetic opinions of the vast ‘plurality of frames’ that they find themselves amongst. I find that a little disturbing. So here’s my question to all my many elders and betters:

Is the long list of divisions a reflection of my personal reading of the development scene or of a sectoral deficiency in dealing with all the wicked problems ‘development’ encompasses?

Trust, Political Instability & Aid – Why reactive development is here to stay

Originally an entry to the Guardian Development Journalism Competition.

A shocking visual demonstration of why so many people find ‘poverty porn’ offensive. Image from: Jovian Phoen:x

During the terrible months of the Horn of Africa Crisis of 2011/12, an astonishingly huge amount of money was raised from an impressively generous public in the midst of the darkest economic times since the depression. This crisis was the first of its size since the decimation of Haiti in 2010, for which an equally staggering amount of money was raised, even if the housing bubble hadn’t yet burst at that point. The people, en masse, are willing to give to help those in an emergency. The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and other humanitarian agencies rely on this disaster-response-giving knowing that if and when they trigger it, they will be able to get a significant sum with which to respond to whatever it is. It is, as Chief Executive of the DEC, Brendan Gormley put it, “a tried and tested method”.

Perhaps this is why the predicted shortage of food in the volatile Sahel regions – areas just south of the Sahara desert – is being billed as a ‘looming crisis’, an ‘impending disaster’, a situation requiring an ‘SOS’ right now. It is these buzzwords and the associated devices that organisations like the DEC know get people to reach into their pockets: the mournful voiceover; the images of desolation; the big eyed, pot bellied children. Never mind the hand-wringing of commentators deploring this as exploitative ‘poverty porn’. Relief agencies rely on them because, quite simply, they work.

Certain sections of the aid and development chattering classes – activists, bloggers, columnists, occasional feature writers – condemned the Horn of Africa appeal for the ‘poverty porn’ focus of the campaign. The focus should be on prevention, the argument goes, not on responding to crises. How long can we go on trying to fix these situations? What’s more, people, donors, will only get saddened by these images for so long, eventually they’ll start changing channel or muting the ads. When they get jaded do we make the images worse? As with drug abuse, the strength of the dosage could escalate again and again until, what? Taken to its obvious end, there is inevitably just one place it can go.

“Would you use a film of a child dying of starvation to get people to donate?” A panel of experts was asked this question at an event at the London School of Economics in November 2011, with the follow up, “why not? Personally, I think something as powerful as that – actually witnessing the death of a child, the preventable death of a child – would compel me to get involved: I’d have to do something if I saw that.”

Currently, several important third sector voices are calling for more attention to be paid to this future emergency of the Sahel. It is a good response to the implicit wastefulness of previous disaster responses – the situations are difficult, volatile and managed by a multitude of different and conflicting actors; of course actions are implemented less than perfectly. The alternative model of large scale foreign aid touted most visibly by the economist Jeffrey Sachs and his associated ‘celebaid’ advocates such as the often unfairly derided Bono and Bob Geldof is one that is unlikely to draw much support from the general public.

Foreign aid is intimately wrapped up in the toxic world of politics and politicians, a world experiencing a protracted image crisis. The public will give out cash, that much is clear, but they won’t do so to individuals working in a profession regularly ranked as the least trustworthy – even bankers are seen more positively. Politics isn’t popular. Just look at modern Europe. There’s a very rare and uneasy coalition in Britain from which no party looks likely to emerge positively. In France, the new President is far from universally popular with the far-right Front National lurking with worrying increases in popularity.  The ever fading edifices of Italian and Spanish glory have had their downfalls writ large on every newspaper and magazine for months. The USA is wrapped up in domestic issues with the Presidential election coming soon. The Obama administration – while widely admired internationally – has suffered threats and defeats in recent forays into the international arena: first, the World Bank Presidential nomination process threw up the first genuine threat to US domination of the position; next, North Korea announced it would go ahead with its nuclear weapons testing despite hopes that the promise of diplomatic reconciliation between Pyongyang and  Washington would deter them.

All in all, politics and ‘Big Aid’ seem very unlikely saviours of the humanitarian industry right now. In all probability, the economic failures of the last five years or so have condemned global development to a very difficult period. Not because people have stopped giving, necessarily, but because people have lost faith in the kinds of institutions that are capable of delivering new and improved approaches to humanitarian challenges.

Poverty porn is the result of an approach to such challenges that relies on the occurrence of full-blown disasters – it is reactive rather than proactive. When campaigners, donors and agencies successfully banish this approach they will banish the exploitative, limiting and occasionally offensive images that make it work. Just don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.

Earning The Right To Be In The Wrong

Image from: NYU Development Research Institute blog

The ridiculousness of ‘aid’ in Hollywood shouldn’t be replicated in the real world (or, as in this example, vice versa).

The Development Blogosphere was abuzz a few weeks back when this very well written blog post started getting a bunch of attention. This was a post about ‘the aid bitchslap’ or, as SEAWL put it, “the strange, ugly and enlightening time of moving from idealism to realism.”

It spurred a fair amount of hand wringing and debate over the whys and wherefores of the aid sector in general, with particular reference to US policy decisions – check out the Reddit discussion on the post. I have to admit, I found myself underwhelmed. It reminded me of a post on Aidsource a few months before in which a student who ‘figures out aid is messed up’ was met with a firm rebuttal. Here’s a telling extract:

There are two widely known, but rarely spoken (and never written down until now, so far as I know) rules in the full-time practicing professional humanitarian world that I inhabit:

1) Aid is messed up. Everyone knows it. It’s not a surprise. Seriously – everyone knows it. That aid is messed up may be just the latest soda-machine-crisis for Karen [the writer of this blog post], but it is old, old news in the aid real world. You don’t impress us by telling us what we already know.

2) You have to earn the right to get all angsty about how messed up aid is. Yep, the truth is out there for anyone to see. But as unfair as it perhaps is, we don’t really respect dissenting voices from those who have not actually “been there”, whether “been there” means having spent the last 10 years running distributions that went nuts, being tasked with making impossible decisions, or simply clocking some hard time as a cubicle-farmer in an NGO HQ.

Now, the first point is why I was underwhelmed by this story of heartbreak from Haiti. You’re entering a flawed field which plenty of people think is pretty much morally bankrupt anyway – you should have done your research before you went and the failure of your project might not have been so demoralizing. Not that I want to seem too cynical or dismissive about this post: he seems like a genuine and thoughtful guy and I hope he continues to want to help people.

Point 2 highlights why the reaction to this post in the blogosphere got on my nerves – it’s the double standards of it all. Because Quinn figured out Part 1 while ‘in the field’, it’s more legitimate because he’s earned it by getting his hands dirty. This is ridiculous. In fact, his having spent two years on a project he feels like is a failure is MUCH worse than figuring out that aid has problems while still at University or while doing some low-impact internship like Karen. His learning was linked to a bunch of money being spent on ‘helping’ people that didn’t work. Even worse, at least in his estimation, the project went some way to worsening relations between humanitarian groups and Haitians.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely do not think this is Quinn’s fault. Everyone ends up in a crappy project or organisation in this field, it happens and people do learn from those experiences. I also think that the more people who haven’t ‘been there’ who realise this kind of work is messed up are just as worthy of praise than people like Quinn. First of all, it could save potentially damaging community good will towards other, more successful projects. Second, if less people are willing to work their arses off trying to do these projects and, therefore, less of those projects.

A lot of aid is bad and broken – knowing this as an industry is pointless if it allows new people access to that knowledge only by repeating mistakes. That just means everyone has to go through the time/money-wasting, demoralising experience that Quinn did – and for what? So you’ve earned your stripes? So you can talk in dark, measured tones about your rock solid field cred?

Give me a break. Aid is macho and ridiculous enough in Hollywood, nobody needs that infiltrating the real world.