Tuesday, October 13, 2015

At Odds over Ownership, by Tom Carothers

Ownership is one of the mainstream consensus-oriented concepts that have become common in the aid world during recent decades—frequently invoked, widely appealing, hard to disagree with, and applicable to providers and recipients of aid alike. Yet the apparent consensus on ownership masks some deep tensions between aid providers and recipients.

The ownership imperative arose from the growing attention to aid effectiveness that emerged in the 1990s.  Foundational research found that aid is effective when recipient governments are committed to reforms.  This led to the conclusion that aid providers should steer aid to governments committed to “owning” the aid they receive.  During the same years, aid-receiving governments became more vocal in their frustration with the supply-driven nature of Western aid and the deficiencies resulting from that.  This assertiveness contributed to the emergence in the 2000s of a new donor-recipient dialogue on aid, elaborated at multiple multilateral forums across the decade, in which recipient governments insisted on ownership as a central principle of good aid practice.

In those same years, however, a different line was unfolded in the aid world, producing a second imperative that has ended up bumping up against, and sometimes openly conflicting, with the ownership drive. It was a shift among aid practitioners away from the assumption that recipient governments are exclusive partners in the development enterprise to the recognition that aid providers must often find other partners in aid-receiving countries if aid is to be successful. The second imperative grew out of the problematic first generation of efforts by donors to support improved governance in developing countries. Aid providers repeatedly ran up against the unpleasant fact that resistance to governance reform was often deeply rooted within the governing institutions themselves. They began looking for ways to nurture and support impetus for reform within societies more broadly, by supporting organizations and citizens outside of governing institutions to exert pressure against power holders for positive change.

Thus while the aid community was making a steady march toward formalizing and fortifying the principle of aid, some major aid actors were evolving toward  the view that smart aid meant directing at least some aid to people and organizations outside of the governmental sphere.  Tensions resulting from the contradictions between these two imperatives surfaced in the debates over the definition of ownership in international aid forums, in particular the efforts in the run-up to the Fourth High-Level Forum at Busan in 2011 to define ownership as “democratic.” The idea here, of course, was that the term “democratic” would be understood to mean that governments need to take account of the wishes of their people in determining development priorities—and in a deeper sense, that recipient societies as a whole “own” aid rather than just governments themselves.

Tensions between the two imperatives are now breaking out in much more serious ways.  A rapidly growing number of governments are taking measures to restrict external aid to domestic civil society organizations, including legal constraints, public denunciations of such aid, and administrative hurdles. The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law has documented dozens of cases of such restrictive measures in recent years. Donor-side attention to this phenomenon has risen to such a degree that President Barack Obama and more than 20 other national leaders issued a call to action at the UN General Assembly in September 2013, aimed at pushing back against the growing trend of constraints on enabling environments for civil society.

Governments creating restrictions on external assistance for civil society usually justify  such measures by accusing Western aid providers of political interference. For example, they charge that aid to human rights organizations that criticize governmental restrictions on basic freedoms is really political activity cloaked in the garb of putatively apolitical civil society assistance. Yet while concerns over political meddling by external actors may indeed be a principal motivation, these recipient governments are also often spurred by anger against aid providers, who they feel are undercutting the ownership principle by going around them to get aid directly to citizens.

Faced with this sweeping trend of forceful pushback against external aid for civil society, the aid community is only starting to formulate a response. The instinct of some practitioners is to pull back—to retreat to the safer ground of old approaches when aid went only to governments or organizations chosen by the host government to be aid recipients. If widely embraced, this cautionary reaction would mean a retreat from the basic insight that has driven the evolution of aid away from the old pattern of treating governments as exclusive aid partners: the understanding that positive social, political, and economic change in any society just as often originates from outside the national government as from within the government; and that if aid is to be an effective facilitator of such change, it must proceed through a diverse range of partnerships with nongovernmental and governmental actors alike.

In short, the ownership principle has evolved from a line of convergence in the aid world to high contested territory.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and should not be reported as representing the official views of the OECD or of its member countries.

(Tom Carothers Is a contributing author to The Governance Practitioner’s Handbook: Alternative Ideas and Approaches)

Thomas Carothers, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is the author of Closing Space: International Democracy and Human Rights Support Under Fire (with Saskia Brechenmacher), and Development Aid Confronts Politics: The Almost Revolution (with Diane de Gramont).