Are calls for ‘effective’ development cooperation being heard?

A resident secures his house by placing plastic sheets on the windows ahead of the arrival of super cyclone Yasa in Fiji's capital city of Suva on 16 December 2020. (Keystone/AFP/Lice Movono)

Eleven years after an agreement was concluded in South Korea setting principles for development aid distribution, a little-known high-level talk in Geneva prompts questions about what purpose the latest session serves.

For three days this week, hundreds of government officials, international organisations, public and private donors and NGOs met at an airport hotel conference centre for the Effective Development Co-operation Summit. At its close, a non-binding statement called on boosting development cooperation commitments, and participation in a “monitoring exercise” to ensure that countries live up to them.

The blandly-named gathering originates from a declaration established in Busan in 2011 at a high-level meeting co-organised by South Korea and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to improve the process of development cooperation. That was five years before United Nations members adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), whose target date in 2030, is, for many, coming up frightfully soon.  

Now, on the heels of a promising yet inconclusive Cop27 climate summit, and as many countries struggle to recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and a cost-of-living crisis that has generated growing poverty and hunger, the renewed call in Geneva for better management of aid could barely be taking place at a more critical time.

“We are in a world of cascading crises,” Rebeca Grynspan, secretary general of the UN Conference on Trade and Development  (UNCTAD), warned at the development summit here. “Cascading crises mean cascading inequalities… Shock after shock, people have depleted the ability to cope with disasters.”

She said it was essential that funding gaps be narrowed, and joined growing calls for debt restructuring to relieve countries from huge incurring financial burdens.

In October, David Boyd, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, estimated SDG annual funding gaps at $4 trillion. 

Codes of conduct

The four central principles agreed in 2011 defining how development cooperation should be implemented are: recipient country leadership and ownership, focusing on results that matter for the most vulnerable in developing countries, inclusivity in partnerships built on trust and transparency and accountability in those collaborations.   

Kristina Lanz of Swiss NGO Alliance Sud told Geneva Solutions that Busan initially generated a lot of momentum to focus on the principles, after development aid had been viewed mostly in terms of volumes provided and received. National parliaments, she said, aligned with the principles and interesting monitoring of the aid was put in place. 

The resulting Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC) has brought together actors at all levels of government in developed and developing countries with civil society, the private sector, philanthropists and others to improve the quality of engagement, incorporating issues of human rights, democratic ownership of development drivers, gender equality and effective institutions. 

But since the launch of the SDGs, Lanz said the principles “lost momentum”, and have remained “a bit in the background”. 

“These principles are extremely important, and could play a bigger role because of the unique set of actors brought together by the GPEDC structure]” she said. The GPEDC high-level summits meet every couple of years, providing the opportunity for partners to build on cooperation links.

The codes apply to all forms of aid cooperation including climate finance, support to gender equality, green bonds and innovative financing mechanisms, such as public-private partnerships and taxation.

Mustafa Sakr, reporting and coordinating officer at the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD), said those principles were key in all fields, including climate finance, as they take into consideration needs of specific countries and their priorities, such as those of the rural sector that is predominant on the African continent. 

But ensuring inclusiveness of local civil society groups and communities in decisions regarding development may fail to materialise on subnational levels. Tensions between recipient governments and local NGOs over leadership – which surfaced in some of the discussions in Geneva – may hinder aid distribution to the most vulnerable.

“When you talk about country ownership, it is about community ownership,” said Josaia Osborne, deputy executive director of the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (PIANGO), after government ministers speaking on a panel pressed on how national authorities needed to lead. “It needs to be centred on the people whose needs we are trying to address.”

After Yasa, a category five tropical cyclone, flooded homes in Fiji in 2020, he said village clans successfully gained funding from German NGO Bread for the World, when they identified their needs and land where they could be relocated, with the support of local civil society groups.

According to the International Institute for Environment and Development, only 10 per cent of climate adaptation finance reaches local levels. 

A model for behavioural change?

Asked about the role of the Geneva meeting, Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, told Geneva Solutions that it is to take stock of the latest experiences in development cooperation. “In practical terms, it’s a useful event to share experiences to improve delivery of development assistance from developed countries to the developing world,” he said.

While other international conferences may already incorporate principles of inclusivity, accountability, recipient leadership and impacting the most vulnerable in aid cooperation in less pointed ways, AUDA- NEPAD’s Sakr said effective development cooperation discussions are “absolutely necessary”. 

He signalled the arduous discussions at the Cop27 on creating a loss and damage fund from which developed countries would pay developing countries for the impact of their carbon emissions, saying Busan principles may provide a pathway for its elaboration.

“How is this fund going to be managed? If it is managed in the traditional way, it is going to have problems,” he said, suggesting that the standards can serve as a format for donor and recipient partners.

“A behavioural change is very important,” Sakr said. “Otherwise, we will be talking about climate finance for the next 100 years.”

Diana Janse, Sweden’s state secretary for international development cooperation, recognised that current models of cooperation were inadequate, and that sharing responsibility in aid cooperation needed to be part of the process for effective aid cooperation.

“The fact that in many instances we are still engaged in development cooperation in the same countries as we started supporting some 60 years ago, is evidence that something is not working, and that we have a shared responsibility,” she said.

Sweden and Indonesia will assume the role of GPEDC co-chairs at the close of the current conference, taking over from Switzerland and Bangladesh. 

Who’s listening?

Observers worry that not enough stakeholders are taking note of the “how to” effective co-operation bullet points, particularly as pressure builds to decolonise and localise aid.

“When you hear the speeches, they are nice speeches. Everyone knows how to ‘talk the talk’. But do they know how to ‘walk the talk?’” asked Lanz regarding this and other international development-related conferences. 

Patricia Danzi, head of Switzerland’s development and cooperation agency, told Geneva Solutions that as a donor, her government had a “head-start”, understanding the importance of localised involvement in decision-making due to its own decentralised system involving direct democracy. “It’s not new to us.”

Swiss aid spending increased slightly in 2021 during the pandemic, though remains below the UN target of 0.7 per cent of GDP.   

“We need to work on two sides. We have to increase the budget to follow the needs but we also have to reduce the funding needs,” Danzi said, emphasising the ability to “perform better” with partners.

Whether that would materialise quickly enough at a global level over the next eight years was a question Lanz was asking herself. “I guess one has to stay optimistic and hopeful,” she commented.