Reflections on War Child's 'The Future of Aid: Our Shared Responsibility' panel

War Child Canada organised an interesting panel on The Future of Aid: Our shared responsibility a few days ago featuring Samantha Nutt, Founder of War Child Canada, Ian Smillie, Chair of the Diamond Development Initiative, Sylvester Bayowo of Engineers Without Borders Canada, Sasha Lezhnev, Policy Consultant, Enough Project and Co-Founder of the Grassroots Reconciliation Group and Vijayendra [Biju] Rao, Lead Economist in the Development Research Group of the World Bank
I watched the full 67 minute YouTube video and since I have not found much writing on the discussion would like to share some highlights mixed-in with my own comments. 


First of all, it was an interesting discussion about the current state of international development and current issues, but disappointingly little was actually said about the future. It is still a worthwhile hour to learn about development topics, but nothing really new or ground-breaking was discussed. 

How much does the public really know and care about development?
Ian was the first who mentioned the gap between official aid's intentions and its real purpose of serving a political and/or economic agenda. Maybe it was because of the panellists background, but the 'aid industry' was primarily discussed in the context of bilaterals, multilaterals and NGOs. Although they still spend a considerable amount of money on development it would have been interesting to learn how and why these institutions will matter in the future and what other organisations are available. Samantha highlighted the chicken-and-egg problem of an uninterested and underinformed mainstream public and mainstream media that continue to enforce negative, cynical stereotypes around development issues. That may be so, but the question is whether this will also be the future of aid. The role of social media, Internet and an increasing number of development students and their potential impact on future debates was not discussed, but I have doubts whether bad fundraising ads on television or shallow reporting by newspapers is really the future of development communication.
 

DIY aid is mostly a bad idea
The discussion continued with some well-known variations of the themes around unwillingness to learn, lack of coordination on the ground and 'compassion fatigue', but again, these problems have been around for a few years and the question is how and whether this can change (open aid/ aid transparency was not mentioned once for example). However, both Ian and Samantha made important points about professionalism and expectations: 

 'What is it about this business that people think they can do it better than the professionals?',
Ian asked, criticising DIY aid and also criticising the attitude that the amount of overheads is the best indicator to judge an organisation's 'impact' (see my recent review of Saundra Schimmelpfennig's book on this topic). Samantha pointed out that organisations like MSF have started to embrace failure and that a commitment to failure will remain an important issue.

World Bank wants you to join the 'monitoring business'
Biju's response was that he encouraged students to join the 'monitoring business' instead of the 'aid industry', because monitoring and evaluation are still not sufficiently build into projects and it will become more important to prove impact (unfortunately he did not comment on RCTs or other current debates around 'impact'). He also mentioned a recent review of 300 project design documents and the amount of cutting and pasting he discovered, but that was a critical as it got with regards to the World Bank. It was interesting, and proably quite revealing for the discussion that Ian recommended three books (the report of the Pearson Commission (1969), Robert Chambers' Putting the Last First (1986) and Dennis Rondinelli's Development projects as policy experiments(1993) that were published a few years back. But what do they tell us about the future of aid other than the fact that developement has always been difficult and complex and we already know quite a few things about the topic? 

Samantha pointed out that long-term development will rely on market-generated opportunities; Sasha added that oil, gas and mineral revenues can potentially have a huge positive impact and Sylvester stressed that existing institutions in Africa need long-term support to deliver services to people. But what about China? What about social enterprises? What about new foundations? It would have been interesting to get a few ideas outside the box of current development thinking. 

Voluntourism - just don't do it
Samantha made two important points at the end regarding professionalism in development. First, she stressed that the quality of people working in development has been improved and that now more students than ever graduate with a development degree. Ian added that nowadays many development experts are local expeerts who work for local organisations. Samantha was also very outspoken in dismissing voluntourism efforts: 
'Go and see the beauty of Africa and spend your tourist dollars on local enterprises. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this', 
rather than paying lots of money for organised trips and projects.

And, yes, the World Bank would like to see protests in front of their offices

Finally, Biju is now on record that he misses protesting young people/students in front of the World Bank. He was generally mourning the demise of development-related protests, but I am not sure how 'Occupy World Bank' will fly with the Bank's security system and US-regulations...but it is probably worth a shot and referring to Biju in case anybody asks ;)!

All in all a nice panel discussion (although the audio quality was quite poor in the middle of the talk and not fit for online broadcasting really) on contemporary development challenges and issues - but it was missing a cutting-edge (Scott Gilmore came to my mind, because there was quite a focus on failed aid in Afghanistan and Haiti and Peace Dividend Trust's view would have been interesting, for example) that would have provided some thought-provoking views into the future of aid.

P.S.: Why not stay connected with @aidnography ?

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