Accra Agenda for Action: Old Promises, New City

Over 200 governments, donor organizations and civil society organizations will meet in Accra, Ghana for the 3rd High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness from September 2 to 4. The High Level Forum will culminate with a ministerial declaration, the Accra Agenda for Action.

Public and private aid adds up to over $170 billion per year. Any improvement in its effectiveness could have a huge pay-off. A major investment of time, energy and financial resources has been made in the preparation of the Accra Agenda, so it is natural to ask “what will be done differently on September 5?”

Probably very little. The messages of the Accra Agenda are benign: strengthen country ownership; build more effective partnerships; and deliver and account for more development results. No one can argue with these points.

But bolder steps are needed. Most low-income countries are off-track in meeting most of the Millennium Development Goals. Aid volumes actually fell last year. If accountability is taken seriously, there must be change in response to these facts. Instead, the Accra Agenda repeats the good intentions of the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, but offers few specifics for significant changes on the ground. There are no surprises.

Part of the problem is that progress on the Paris Declaration has been slow and remains very uneven. According to a new monitoring survey of 54 aid recipients (covering half of total aid flows in 2007), less than ten percent of recipients are judged to have sound frameworks to monitor and assess development results. Less than a quarter of recipients link their development strategies with their national budget (the Paris target is to raise this to 75 percent by 2010). Donors continue to build parallel systems to deliver aid, even where recipient capacities are strong.

Faster progress is unlikely given a lack of political will and leadership in some of the largest donors. The United States is the single largest aid donor, contributing one-fifth of the world total in 2007. But the US approach to development, as laid out in the 2006 National Security Strategy and the 2007 Foreign Assistance Framework, is squarely centered on bilateral cooperation. The Paris Declaration is not mentioned in Secretary of State Rice’s speeches, nor is it mentioned in the numerous commission reports, think tank articles and workshops devoted to the topic of how to make US aid more effective.

There are other indicators of indifference towards aid coordination. The United States is not participating as a chair or co-chair in any of the nine roundtables that have been organized for Accra. The number of missions coordinated with other donors has fallen by 19 percent between 2005 and 2007. Coordinated reporting mechanisms fell by four percent, and the number of project implementation units parallel to country structures is unchanged and the highest among all bilateral donors. Without leadership of the US (and other large donors like Japan, which similarly finds the Paris Declaration to be tangential to its development efforts), it is unlikely that the Accra Agenda for Action will deliver major changes even if the US and others endorse the Agenda for the sake of diplomatic nicety.

Exhorting the US and others to pay more attention to aid coordination will not work. The heart of the problem is that there are many different faces of development today, each with their own objectives, organizational strategies and incentives. Bilateral donors, multilateral development agencies, civil society organizations, non-DAC donors (most importantly China), vertical funds and others cannot all be accommodated in a one-size-fits-all framework. A division of labor cannot be planned by bureaucrats, even if they meet in a new city every three years.

That is why the world still needs to think about what to do after the Accra meeting is over. There are three priorities:

Official aid volumes fell last year because there is not much debt to forgive any longer. Official DAC donors need to develop achievable plans for how they intend to raise disbursements to the $130 billion by 2010 promised at Gleneagles.

More development money must flow to developing countries. The present rules of the game are tilted towards providing development assistance in kind, rather than in cash. Food aid and technical assistance are the most obvious examples of this kind of “tying.” Aid flows are also hugely volatile making planning impossible. Much more ambitious targets are needed for predictable cash flows from each donor which can be allocated in ways that reinforce recipient country budget processes to meet development priorities.

Civil society groups are not integrated into development strategies, although they provide at least $40 billion to $60 billion per year and have extensive field experience with delivering development on the ground. They are ready to organize themselves and play a more strategic role in many development areas, as they already do in humanitarian assistance.

If the Accra Agenda for Action had specifics on these three areas, people would return from Ghana with a different “To-do” list. Instead, it will likely be “business as usual” on September 5, 2008.