Here, Alexa Greenwald, Alumna, LSE IDEAS and Head of Strategy, The Centrum Media, re-evaluates the role of development aid for the post-COVID-19 era
The pandemic has called into question so many aspects of the world that seemed permanent: our social behaviour, our modes of governing, our financial institutions, our travel patterns, consumption habits, and healthcare systems. While the world is still grappling with the urgency of controlling the spread of COVID-19, the aftermath will create a second wave of systemic disruptions likely bigger than the first. One system to be looked at closely is the Western, neoliberal model of development aid that has dominated since the post-WWII era.
Current short-term financial assistance
The underlying principle of the current model is that developed countries provide short-term financial assistance to developing countries in order for them to reach several benchmarks concerning human rights, service delivery and economic productivity. While many aid programmes deliver critical goods and services to populations that would otherwise be left without like the case of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Turkey, or Afghans internally displaced by the ongoing war, development funding can also create complex outcomes of dependency that stalls natively driven development. In certain instances, high levels of development assistance disincentivise recipient governments to take responsibility for social services they know will be fulfilled by donor money. For example, one could argue this has happened to an extent in Nigeria and Pakistan who over the last decade have received more than $600 and $400 million respectively in annual economic and development assistance funds by the U.S. alone and yet whose populations continue to suffer from insufficient service delivery.
This problem of dependency becomes all the starker during a pandemic when field aid workers and the embassy and agency staff managing programmes are called home and the domestic infrastructure lacks the capacity to fill the gaps. Worldwide, hundreds of aid and non-governmental organisations have slimmed operations and sent international staff back to their home countries. And while the UN has called for a continuation of humanitarian assistance with ‘no exceptions’, those organisations trying to maintain operations are doing so primarily via local staff. With respect to development, COVID-19 has proven that local capacity is most critical. Perhaps one of the starkest examples of this is in Afghanistan where the Taliban have taken up the cause of addressing the coronavirus in a country deeply vulnerable to both the direct health and indirect socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic. The US has contributed $137 billion in reconstruction aid since 2002, and yet ironically, it is now the Taliban conducting public health awareness campaign, distributing informational pamphlets, holding workshops, and conducting disinfecting operations. All tasks that would normally be a joint task between the Health Ministry and a myriad of NGOs and development organisations. But under these circumstances, the Taliban are there, on the ground with access to the population and the capacity to mobilise. International development agencies are not. This pandemic has forced us to take another look at the real end goal of development aid. When push comes to shove, local capacity is what matters most. The knowledge, skills, tools, material, and human resources left behind when donor organisations and their international staff cannot be there, is how we need to measure effectiveness. This is the end goal the industry needs to return to.
So what does this mean for development assistance in the post-COVID-19 era?
I think the pandemic calls for a major rethink of what sustainable development actually means. I would argue that non-essential development assistance, meaning money allocated for purposes other than essential, life-saving humanitarian aid, be closely re-evaluated against a much stricter definition of sustainability. And there are successful examples of alternative models of development assistance that we can turn to. The Agha Khan’s Rural Support Program, for example, which has raised millions of people out of poverty (and thus paving the way for natively driven development) in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh with very small injections of funds. Founded on Raffeisen principles of social solidarity, self-help, and sustainability, this model has proven effective for over 50 years. It has supported rural communities in building their own capacity by self-establishing community organisations, identifying a leader, implementing local saving mechanisms, identifying their capacities and gaps to income generation, and only then receiving small-scale financial and in-kind support to overcome these limitations. Once income-generation has been established, other development priorities, including human rights, gender issues, health, and education follow. This model is all about building real local capacity that remains far beyond the intervention. Programmes and approaches like these are what development assistance budgets should be directed towards and in much smaller amounts.
Until now, governments have been able to avoid a full reckoning of the limitations of the current development model that has grown large and unwieldy over the last 30 years. Coronavirus is now forcing us to look at these limitations. We don’t know how long this pandemic will last nor what will come next, but it’s clear that we can no longer afford, literally and morally, to rely on the current approach to development with its reliance on a steady supply of external goods and services. Among so many other global systems, it’s time for the development aid industry to change too, and it’s up to the largest donor governments to lead the way. The question now is whether they will be pushed or pulled to do so.
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