Aid effectiveness: bringing country ownership (and politics) back in

The 2005 Paris Declaration grew out of a consensus on the importance of ‘country ownership’ to the success of development efforts. In other words, it came to be recognised that the effectiveness of aid depends critically on whether or not a country’s leadership is really committed to development. The obvious question arising, then and now, is: how can international actors support the emergence of country-owned development efforts? Since Paris and Accra, however, attention has been focused on a subtly different question. The assumption is tacitly made that most countries already have development-oriented political leaderships. This paper considers that assumption untenable and agrees with those arguing that ownership should be treated as a desirable outcome, not an achieved state of affairs. It then asks the corresponding question: whether external actors have any useful role in assisting the emergence of developmental country leaderships. It offers a heavily qualified yes in two parts. First, in view of the evidence that aid as such is probably on balance bad for the institutional fabric of poor developing countries, much more attention should be given to reforming the non-aid policies of donor countries which are known to affect the economic and political systems of developing countries in negative ways. Second, more thought should be given to the fact that country leaders typically face difficult collective action problems in moving towards a more developmental politics. Some of the biggest challenges to improving development practice at all levels, from bottom to top, take the form of unresolved collective action problems. Directly or indirectly, international development organisations have a useful, and perhaps indispensable, contribution to make in helping countries overcome institutional obstacles of this type. This is what support to country ownership should chiefly be about. A radical shift is therefore needed in political and public thinking about how rich countries can assist the development of poor countries. The discussion around Busan is almost entirely avoiding these issues, but it provides a good occasion to make them more central to international policy debate.