Owning Up to Ownership

In 2005, Governments of developing countries and all the major donors in the world signed the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, which enshrined five principles or norms that would be at the centre of all development assistance. These were:

  • Country ownership of the development process
  • Alignment to national processes and strategies
  • Harmonisation of donor practices
  • Managing for development results; and
  • Mutual Accountability

Though there are various flaws in the ideas of Paris Agenda, our means of expressing them and our pursuit of their outcomes, the basic stuff of the agenda is important and fully worth pursuing. The premise is that aid can be delivered in much better ways to maximise its effectiveness subject to constraints external to the delivery of aid, such as policy, trade barriers and so on.

Laura Freschi posted an interesting piece on Aid Watch recently about the MCC’s evolving conception of the Ownership norm of the Paris Declaration, a discussion that’s worth broadening out. The central idea behind the PD’s conception of ownership is that local actors should determine and direct the development agenda, and donors should only support this. These local actors include civil society, NGOs and Government. They are to be brought together by Government in the design of a national development plan which forms the basis of the coordination of aid efforts.

Working in development among donors or in Government, Ownership is a ubiquitous phrase. It’s a major theme, or at least mentioned, in almost every policy document and plan I’ve read in-country since around 2006, when the Paris Declaration really sunk into the collective consciousness of aid agencies and some developing country Governments.

Yet conceptions of what ownership is remain muddled. In most cases, Ownership is confused with ‘consultation’ or ‘participation’ or even ‘leadership’. These are not the same thing. Ownership implies direction, drive and origination of an idea from a source. If the idea is external, the drive to implement is external, but it is implemented by a Government or local source and attributed to their leadership, ownership has been co-opted into an activity, but does not actually exist.

Put a different way, meaningful ownership is an active concept, not a passive one, defined by power and by action. The Royal Family may have a ceremonial role in England, but the Queen’s speech is in the voice of the Prime Minister, and her role is entirely passive. No one would consider that the ownership of policy originates from the Queen.

What this means is that ownership cannot be given or bestowed. It must be taken. Developing country actors must assert their vision and demand donors reconcile themselves to it. This is not to say that donors should have no voice: I believe one of the most powerful and useful functions of donor organizations is its role in policy dialogue. Despite this, though, for ownership to exist, they cannot have a more active role than advocacy.

This approach to ownership runs into two problems. Firstly, donors are uncomfortable about actually ceding their influence on policy. They know very well that it’s not their voice that carries the greatest ability to change local policy, but their funding. Conditionality in more indirect forms remains central to donor practices. Project support, basket funding and so on all contribute to the donor’s ability to determine the balance of funding in a country; budget support assessment frameworks do the same. Though the idea of budget support is to increase Government freedom of action, they are determined on the basis of a set of sector-specific indicators. The balance of these indicators distorts Government spending, as they are usually heavily biased towards health, education and Governance.

Moving towards true country ownership scares most donors because they do not trust developing country Governments to ‘do the right thing’. This approach to ownership can be summed up as ‘you can have ownership, as long as you agree with us’.

The second problem is that for ownership to be stable, it must be backed by power. Yet in the aid relationship, almost all sources of power are with the donors. Donors have resources which they may withhold from countries if they so desire; and it’s the Western countries which have the largest voice in the running of the multilateral donors. Without the power of sanction over donors, developing country actors have little means to truly take control of the aid relationship and design and implement their own development strategies.

It’s for this reason that reforming the international aid architecture is so important. I’ve spoken about incentives before, and recognizing and reorganizing these incentives is crucial. Beyond this, an understanding of the real power relations that underpin the aid structure is necessary; changing this will be very hard and will require innovative and quite possibly radical changes. What they are, I’m not yet sure.

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