- Proponents of international agreements, such as the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, may argue that they provide high level legitimacy to a set of shared principles for delivering aid and serve as tool for developing countries to enforce better donor engagement. Critics may argue that international agreements represent a utopian donor-driven vision of aid effectiveness which has little to do with the practical and political realities in developing countries and the incentives faced by donor and government institutions. They point out that out of the 13 targets set out in the Paris Declaration in 2005, just a single target was actually met by 2010.Who is right? Are international agreements “in tune” or “out of touch” with the reality on the ground? The recently agreed New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States lends an opportunity to examine this question once again, in light of experience in the g7+ group of fragile states.
Agreed at the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in November 2011, the New Deal was developed by the g7+ themselves, specifically with fragile states in mind: those countries which are caught in cycles of poverty and violence that are considered the biggest challenge for donor engagement.
The New Deal establishes five Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals (PSGs) – inclusive politics, justice, security, economic foundations and revenues and services – as the overriding priorities in fragile states. It also sets out a broad set of policy proposals for improving the way aid is delivered in conflict environments. These reflect a healthy mix of things that are part of the mainstream aid effectiveness agenda, such as aligning behind “one plan” and improving the predictability of aid; as well as a set of genuinely innovative proposals, such as the new concept of a “fragility assessment” to assess the main drivers of instability in a given fragile state.
Given the g7+ ownership of the New Deal, it is perhaps not surprising that it appears to be “in tune” with the needs of fragile states and has the potential to change the way development assistance is provided in situations of conflict and instability. But is it really “in touch” with the realities faced on the ground?
South Sudan is a founding member of the g7+ group of fragile states and a strong advocate of the New Deal. Aspects of the New Deal have been incorporated into the country’s new official Aid Strategy, which was drafted at the same time as the New Deal was being negotiated. The two documents have much in common. Both call for aid to use and improve government systems, for aid to be delivered in ways that strengthens the capacity of recipient governments and for donors and recipient governments to align themselves behind one development plan. So it would appear that – in South Sudan at least – the New Deal is “in tune” with national aid effectiveness policies. However, a deeper look at the detail of the aid strategy reveals that this is a rudimentary assessment.
Rather than simply reciting a set of broad aid effectiveness principles, the Aid Strategy responds to circumstances specific to South Sudan. It does this by establishing a set of “benchmarks for aid delivery” that can be used as a yardstick for assessing progress. It also expounds a number of practical steps to achieving these benchmarks, including concrete Government commitments such as improving fiduciary systems and developing a strategic approach to capacity building – a sensible and necessary step to encourage a change in donor engagement. The point here is that the Aid Strategy has moved beyond the mere aspirations of the New Deal and sets out a clear and practical process to ensure the objectives are achieved.
What is the usefulness of international agreements in this context? Clearly they are helpful in establishing best practice and a tool for judging overall performance. They can also add a good dose of legitimacy to nationally developed aid management strategies, in cases where they are used in conjunction with specific agreements at the country level. However, there is little evidence to suggest that international agreements automatically lead to changes in aid delivery at the national level and cannot therefore be a substitute for a nationally led dialogue. It seems likely that success (or otherwise) is determined by how government and donors work together in formulating a set of practical steps towards achieving their objectives. If they under emphasising the critical importance of this country level process, international agreements do risk being “out of touch” with the challenges faced by the developing countries in improving the impact of aid.
At the time of writing, South Sudan is in the midst of conducting a fragility assessment. This work will potentially culminate in the development of a “compact” between the Government and development partners, setting out a number of priority actions. These are promising developments. Ultimately, however, the New Deal will be judged not on plans or assessments, but on results: improved aid delivery, more resilient government institutions and better development outcomes for the peoples of South Sudan. This requires a shift in the relationship by government and donors, and incentives faced by both at the country level. This is undoubtedly a huge challenge. Nevertheless, strong g7+ ownership of the process may be a key factor in helping the agenda move beyond aspiration by catalysing a genuine change in the behaviour of donors and government institutions, paving the way for improved aid delivery in fragile states.
In tune or out of touch? International agreements and the aid effectiveness agenda (the case of south sudan)