1 Oct 2016

In Conversation with Dr. Liam Swiss

Foreign Aid in the post-2015 Development Phase

What kind of work do you do?
I am a sociologist of development. I study processes of globalization and social change with a focus on foreign aid/development assistance and gender in politics. Previously, I worked for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) on Canada’s aid programs to Pakistan and the South Asia region.

What inspires your work?
Working within the aid system inspired me to want to learn more about how it works, what shapes it, and how it affects the societies to which aid is provided. While working at CIDA I became particularly interested in the processes which shaped donor policies and practices to appear so similar across different donor contexts. I investigated that question for my doctoral thesis research and continue to be fascinated by the ways in which aid is shaped by and shapes processes of globalization. Shedding light on these processes and their implications for aid and development globally is my main research goal at present.

What has been the greatest outcome of Aid in developing countries?
That is a tricky question.  Given the broad scope of aid’s role in developing countries – everything from large infrastructure projects to gender equality reforms – it is difficult to pin down one ‘greatest’ outcome. There have been many successes with aid over the last 50+ years, and as many wastes, abuses, and failures.  I think one of the most stunning successes where aid has been implicated is likely the near eradication of Polio worldwide.  The scale of this reduction is shocking when you consider that less than 30 years ago, in 1988, there were an estimated 350,000+ cases of Polio in more than 125 countries.   By 2015 this was reduced to only 74 cases in only a handful of countries (see: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs114/en/).  Aid played a significant role in funding polio vaccination and eradication programs in partnership with governments, civil society, and others worldwide.  The devastating effects of polio have been reduced drastically, to the point that we may see the elimination of the disease as a major health challenge in our lifetimes. Other aid successes merit attention too, but the case of Polio is probably one of the easiest to identify given its sheer scope.

What role will Aid play in the Post-2015 development phase?
The Global Goals are intended to be universal in their application – meaning they have relevance in the Global North as much as in the Global South. In this respect, aid has a large role to play in providing resources to support a global partnership to support sustainable development.  As a mechanism for combating global inequality and funding interventions inspired by the SDGs, aid has a key role to play, but a range of other forms of development finance and transnational resource transfers are equally – if not more – important.  The impact of trade, investment, remittances, South-South cooperation, and domestic resource mobilization/taxation, among others are likely to substantially outweigh the role of aid in working towards the SDGs. In this respect, I see aid as a catalytic tool of the international community and recipient partners to help start or fund initiatives that the benefits of trade, investment, or remittance may not be able to do.  In particular, we can see a role for aid here in the support of global public goods related to major health/disease, climate change, migrants, and other challenges.  For this reason, even with the sharp increases in other forms of development finance, there is still a need for the wealthiest donor countries to commit to more aid funding in future years to support global partnership for sustainable development.  Likewise, the same donor countries must do more to combat inequality within their own societies and realize that development is not just something that happens ‘over there’.  My home country of Canada is an excellent example in this respect.  Canada is a modest donor of aid to the global community and is showing signs of increasing those efforts, but at the same time there are thousands in Canada’s First Nations/Aboriginal communities who do not even have access to clean and safe drinking water.  That is not a problem that will be solved by aid, but is one where the Global Goals’ universal scope is clear.

What follow-ups for Aid to developing countries are in place to ensure its effectiveness?
Aid programming is often managed by donors, partners and implementing agencies in conjunction with communities to try and ensure that desired development results and objectives are achieved.  Regrettably, there is no magic bullet when it comes to making sure that aid is effective.  The aid community has for years struggled with trying to identify the best practices when it comes to aid effectiveness, but they are not always able to embrace those practices in all aid activities.  Some of the keys to aid effectiveness have been shown to relate to giving partners in the Global South more power in directing their own development and to minimizing often redundant and onerous donor administrative requirements.  Still, these keys to effectiveness are sometimes elusive given the politics and bureaucracy associated with all aid programming.

What are some of the covert effects of Aid in developing countries?
Whether covert effects or unintended consequences, aid has seen its fair share.  Some of the most problematic arise when there is a sudden influx of aid and donor activities in an area as a result of a humanitarian crisis or geopolitical flashpoint.  In such instances, there are a number of problems related to aid’s distorting role in local economies and communities – driving up demand for key services and products in such a way that local communities and service providers can often no longer compete for laborers, provisions, accommodation, etc.  Foreign aid has also been accused of promoting ‘Dutch Disease’ by economists who suggest that high levels of aid funding lead the economy to be put to non-productive or low-growth ends rather than more beneficial alternatives.  Like any public policy or program, the potential in aid for unintended consequences needs to be considered fully at the planning stage of any intervention, monitored and managed throughout the lifetime of a program, and assessed critically after the completion of any development initiative.  Regrettably, the critical planning, learning, and introspection required to mitigate negative unintended consequences is not present in all aid programs.

 How will South-to-South Aid and investment affect the development community?
South-South cooperation has become a more frequent and important part of the changing aid landscape.  With emerging economies and middle-income countries transitioning to donor status and providing aid-like support to other countries, development partnerships based on mutual experience of recent development challenges are now an alternative to the conventional aid model. Based in concepts of cooperation and investment rather than assistance and donor conditionality, South-South cooperation has the potential to fundamentally shift the way that aid works in the future.  As more former aid recipient countries partner in South-South cooperation, mainstream Western donors will need to rethink the aspects of the official development assistance (ODA) regime which make South-South Cooperation increasingly appealing to partner countries.

How do we ensure that Aid gets to the intended target communities and not misappropriated by those handling it?
In the West, we often only hear about aid in the mainstream media when a case of theft, corruption, or wasteful spending is identified. However, most government-sponsored aid globally follows rigorous monitoring, evaluation, and auditing processes aimed to prevent just these problems.  Corruption and capital flight are major concerns to governments and communities worldwide and aid cannot help but be a target for those who would misappropriate development spending. I am not sure that it has ever been studied, but I would be surprised if rates of corruption and mishandling of funds is any different in the aid sector than in other charitable or private sector transactions.  Some evidence points towards the strong role in community ownership and decision-making in programs as a means of ensuring greater buy-in.  Likewise, in micro-finance programs, peer-group pressures have also been viewed as a means of encouraging greater compliance and discouraging misappropriation.  All this said, there are always people who are willing to try and take advantage of the system for their own gain.  In countries where the legal and regulatory frameworks are weak, there may be greater opportunity for this sort of abuse.  It is an inherent risk of the aid process, but one that is justified by the potential developmental benefits of so many aid programs.

Can we envision a time when Africa will no longer need foreign aid? How would this happen?
Some aid critics – for instance, Dambisa Moyo – have already argued that sub-Saharan African countries should reject aid as a means of achieving development.  Others argue that countries do not ‘need’ aid, but only accept it because it is available. Replacing aid funds with other forms of development and commercial finance is definitely an option for many countries. Still, there is such a diversity of political, economic and social development contexts across sub-Saharan Africa it is difficult to conceive of all countries being in the position of refusing aid efforts in the near term.  With challenges around domestic resource mobilization and illicit capital flight reduced, many countries would certainly be in a situation where aid’s role in the economy could become much narrower and more specialized than it is at present. As more countries in sub-Saharan Africa reach middle-income status, the challenge will not be aid to countries, but instead aid to communities in parts of those countries where the challenges of absolute poverty remain; a similar pattern we are seeing now in India and China.  The role for strong and vibrant civil society and community organizations – both local and transnational, like NAYD – will be critical in continuing to push for development and social change as aid’s role evolves or diminishes.

Last remarks:
Thanks to Judy Muchiri and NAYD for the opportunity to write about some of these issues.  Aid is but one piece of the puzzle when it comes to development globally, and understanding its place in the 
 global community is a challenging, but necessary part of achieving global sustainable development.

Dr. Swiss is a Sociologist at Memorial University, Canada focusing on International Development, globalization, gender, security and foreign aid.

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