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More Effective Aid: Don’t Just Develop Capacity – Unleash It

Tom Grubisich's picture

Photo credit: OECDThe authors of this post, Tom Grubisich and Jennifer Lentfer, will be co-moderating the session “Winds of Change: Will They Bring a New Paradigm to Development Assistance?” at the Civil Society Forum of the World Bank/International Monetary Fund Spring Meetings. Here is the full schedule of sessions with the Civil Society Forum. The session will be held on Friday, April 15, at 2 p.m. in the C1 Level of the Main Complex of the World Bank (room 100). A livestream of the roundtable will be available and you can also follow the discussion that day on Twitter via #windsofchange.

The Arab awakening in North Africa and the Middle East is shaking up what has been a slow-moving effort to reform the effectiveness of development aid. The awakening and aid reform share common goals – affirming human rights, social justice and transparency. As events in the Middle East continue to fundamentally reshape society, we must ask: How can development assistance also be reshaped to put more power in the hands of the people?

At the World Bank’s Arab Voices and Views Conference in Washington, DC, on March 21, which was live-streamed around the world, Bank President Robert B. Zoellick candidly acknowledged the gaps in integrating human rights and values into multilateral aid assistance:

“[Our] record of action has been spotty. Like others, we also have much to learn."Photo credit: Simone McCourtie/World Bank

“In order to identify and explore these issues, we need first and foremost to open up a genuine and deep dialogue with and between the different voices in the region. We need the new dynamics of public choice. This could contribute to new social contracts.”

Zoellick limited his prescription to the Middle East and North Africa, but it was a beginning – a beginning that may finally bring true reform six years after the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness pledged to do so.

According to the Paris Declaration and the follow-up Accra Agenda for Action (2008), aid programs are now “owned” by the recipient countries. In theory, this was a bold move forward because it helps erase the debilitating culture of charity that has surrounded assistance from its beginning.

But country ownership doesn’t always – or even that often – include the people who are the intended beneficiaries of aid. Too often, donors and the governments of recipient countries pay lip service to the Paris Declaration’s imperative that “aid will be used for agreed purposes [to strengthen] the partner country’s sustainable capacity to develop, implement and account for its policies to its citizens…”

The Listening Project, carried out over the last six years by CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, is a systematic exploration of the ideas and insights of people who live in societies that have been on the receiving end of international assistance efforts. Since 2005, 130 international and local organizations have participated and held conversations with nearly 6,000 people. Their findings reiterate that people in aid recipient societies want more ownership and to have a greater say in their own development, and that donors still provide assistance based more on national agendas and priorities than on local ones.

Development assistance needs to be supported with a firm three-legged stool – donors, recipient countries and the community, particularly at the local level, where human capacity so often goes under-recognized and, just as often, is straitjacketed by a combination of misguided donor aid policies and arbitrary implementation by autocratic governments in the recipient countries. Even the seemingly desirable objective of “capacity development” is a misnomer. Yes, capacity can be “developed”, but aid should also serve to “unleash” capacity – particularly those “softer” but essential skills that enable “truth to speak to power.”

In a speech at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington on April 6, World Bank President Zoellick put his finger – gingerly, to be sure – on issues that used to be too sensitive to be introduced into the debate on aid effectiveness, but are now beginning to make their way to important global reform agendas, thanks to the “winds of change.” Zoellick said:

“Few can claim to have predicted today’s events in the Middle East and North Africa. We must be careful about what we assume might happen next. We must approach development with the same humility. Rather than just talk about what we do know, we should worry about what we do not know. Rather than focus on what we got right, we should worry about what we got wrong. What we missed; when we did not speak loudly enough; where we self-censored — citizens’ voices, yes, but also our own.”

Zoellick’s words deserve to echo through the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness that will be held in Busan, Republic of Korea, from Nov. 29-Dec. 1, 2011. The Forum, a follow-up to Paris and Accra, can and should be the occasion of an awakening for aid, where truth speaks to power and assistance programs serve to unleash the inherent strengths and amplify the voices of local people.


Tom Grubisich, is an independent journalist and has been a consultant to the World Bank. He co-edited “Understanding Risk: Innovation in Disaster Risk Assessment,” published by the World Bank in 2010, and is a former contributor to the World Bank Institute’s Development Marketplace blog.

Jennifer Lentfer is creator/editor of, a blogsite that champions raising the level of human dignity within international assistance and putting real resources behind local means of overcoming development obstacles.

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