Global Policy Forum

Development Co-Operation: Aid By Any Other Name


This Guardian opinion pieces looks at how the term “development co-operation” has begun to replace the word “aid” at high-level conferences on the effectiveness of development aid. Whereas “aid” typically refers to “richer” countries giving money or services to “poorer” countries, development co-operation promotes the idea of two countries working together to find long-term solutions. Though development co-operation invokes a sense of equality between countries, the author warns that the idea does not reflect the reality of their relationship. Instead, countries often give money and make decisions based on a “mix of interest, ideology, and altruism” rather than for purely humanitarian reasons. It is therefore important that future declarations on aid effectiveness are scrutinized for these “hidden agendas,” starting by critically assessing the terminology used.

By Jonathon Glennie

July 27, 2011

It's official. Rich countries no longer give "aid", they engage in "development co-operation". The word "aid" has been all but erased from the declaration set to come out of the fourth high level forum on aid effectiveness, taking place in Busan, South Korea, later this year. In its place is a concept that emphasises not charity or rich donor-poor recipient relationships, but working together for a common good.

I have done my own little nerdish word-cloud of the draft outcome document, and the results are instructive.

In the Paris declaration, written in 2005, the word "aid" is used 57 times, while "co-operation" only gets two mentions. In Accra, the follow-up to Paris in 2008, there is a slight movement towards co-operation, partly as a consequence of south-south co-operation becoming recognised in OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) donor circles. Aid is still the predominant term, used 48 times, but co-operation makes 12 appearances.

But in the draft Busan declaration, circulated earlier this month, "aid" is all but banished as the term to describe money transfers from rich to poor countries. Not counting jargon (such as "aid-for-trade") it is used only six times in the whole document, while co-operation is used 41 times, reversing the previous language trends.

The reasons for this shift are clear. As developing country voices, including the powerful emerging donors, are increasingly heard in international relations, and particularly in the corridors of the OECD, so the term "aid" feels ever more old-fashioned. In this context the decision by Britain's Department for International Development a few years ago to brand itself as UKaid appears even more regressive than it did originally.

Emerging donors prefer concepts that emphasise collaboration, and the development professionals within the DAC donors are leading the way in language modification to fit in with a new reality. At a recent debate hosted by the Overseas Development Institute, Brian Atwood, the chairman of the OECD's development assistance committee (DAC) and the man ultimately responsible for making a success of the Busan meeting, expressed his dislike of the term "aid".

So is this linguistic shift a good thing? On the one hand, it is a move in the right direction. Apart from a more equal relationship between countries, it also implies development relationships that go beyond aid, ie the transfer of cash.

But while the direction of travel of the international community is broadly to be welcomed, and is in fact inevitable, there are a couple of traps that come with the package. The first is the danger of believing that because there is more talk of co-operation and mutuality, that there is in fact more co-operation and mutuality. There may or may not be. Rich countries (old and new) will still make decisions based on a mix of interest, ideology and altruism, just as they always have; it will take more than a progressive declaration to change the power mechanisms inherent in international relations.

The second trap is linked. Although the Paris declaration claimed to be about aid effectiveness, it actually had very little to say about effectiveness per se, ie whether aid is actually making a difference for poverty reduction and development. In fact, it focuses mainly on efficiency issues, such as reducing transaction costs, improving financial management techniques and encouraging donor co-ordination.

Complex political debates of development were sidelined to achieve consensus for an essentially technocratic agenda. This is not a bad thing in itself. Most of the principles in the Paris declaration are worth adhering to, and the bureaucracy surrounding the process has forced some minor gains in these areas.

But the technocratic agenda, while useful in itself, is a threat to development if people begin to confuse genuine aid effectiveness with technocratic improvements, and if time and effort are spent engaging in areas marginal to real development progress. Paris colonised what was meant by aid effectiveness, and has confused the development sector ever since.

The danger in Busan is that this time it is not aid concepts that are colonised and techno-fied, but the broader development agenda. The Paris declaration on aid effectiveness will be transformed later this year, according to the working title of the Busan outcome document, into the Busan partnership for development effectiveness.

Language can be an important precursor to changes in reality, especially if it gives power to the hand of reformers in developing countries to insist on more accountability and honesty in analysing complex relationships.

In that sense, the Busan meeting could turn out to be more era-defining than Paris, where no paradigms were challenged, only generally accepted OECD norms bureaucratised.

However, we should not confuse one particular process that seeks limited consensus on some technical issues for a sufficient state-of-the-art analysis of development effectiveness in the 21st century. If we do, we risk setting back the political struggle and debates that are crucial to poverty reduction.


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