Ownception

Mind bending stuff...

By Laura Collins

Cobb: What do you want from us?
Saito: Inception. Is it possible?
Arthur: Of course not.
Saito: If you can steal an idea from someone’s mind, why can’t you plant one?
Arthur: Okay, here’s me planting an idea in your head. I say to you, “Don’t think about elephants.” What are you thinking about?
Saito: Elephants.
Arthur: Right. But it’s not your idea because you know I gave it to you. The subject’s mind can always trace the genesis of the idea. True inspiration is impossible to fake.
Cobb: That’s not true.
Saito: [to Cobb] Can you do it?
Cobb: Are you offering me a choice? Because I can find my own way to square things with Cobol.
Saito: Then you do have a choice.
Cobb: Then I choose to leave, sir.

I caught myself wryly smiling during the above exchange on a recent trip to the cinema.  It’s a sad life, I know.  For it struck me that Saito’s line of questioning might well be asked of ownership. Ownership, that first principle of aid effectiveness. Ownership that will, in Busan later this year, undoubtably be lauded as an idea but lamented as a target unachieved. Many questions haven’t been – but need to be – asked of ownership. So …

Saito: Ownership. Is it possible?
Me: (Scratches head) ….     …..   Wait, slow down, what do you mean by ownership?
Saito: By partner countries of development strategies. To reverse the practice of conditionality-based agenda setting. It’s essential for development outcomes, you know.
Me: (Scratches head). But what is it? Leadership? Control? Power? Coordination? Responsibility?
Saito: We’ll plant the idea; how it becomes reality will differ upon how that idea is interpreted, understood, implemented…
Me: But then how do we know it’ll achieve what we want it to achieve?
Saito: Here’s me planing an idea in your head: Development Outcomes. What are you thinking about?
Me: Outcomes. But how can I know that the outcomes I’m thinking about look and are the same as your outcomes? If ownership’s inherently internal, how can this idea be an extra-national principle to be implemented by donors and partners?
Saito: Why can’t you plant an idea? Build ownership by training, by capacity building, by suggestion and support during policy development.
Me: Right, but then their not ‘owned’ ideas because we know we gave them to ‘them’. An idea from the outside can always be traced to being from the outside. True ownership of it is impossible to fake.  Hang on, in whom are we planting this idea again? Paris says in ‘government’s’, but Accra reckons ‘country’s’ and I have a feeling Busan’s going to say ‘inclusive’s’…
Saito: Can you do it?
Me: Are you offering me a choice? Because what if I think that the idea of mutual accountability fits better with the idea of partnership, that ownership doesn’t necessarily seem realistic given the financial relationship we’re in?
Saito: Then you do have a choice. On the condition that you have ownership of that choice.
Me: But I thought the choice was whether I would take ownership or not….? Oh, but if ownership is choice and I can choose whether I go along with what you plant or not? Then I choose to say no, sir, every time. Because that shows ownership.

I could go further: we could talk about how I could plant an idea to say no to the idea planted by Saito to say yes. Confused? Isn’t that the point?

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.

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