Africa: From Aid to Entitlement, 06/28/02

Africa: From Aid to Entitlement, 06/28/02

Africa: From Aid to Entitlement Date distributed (ymd): 020628 Document reposted by Africa Action

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Region: Continent-Wide Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +economy/development+


This posting contains brief excerpts from the new book from Zed Press by David Sogge, Give & Take: What's the Matter with Foreign Aid?. Sogge's book combines a comprehensive critique of the conventional aid industry with proposals for alternative perspectives for a new framework for international public investment.

Another posting today contains several comments from Africa Action, including an article by Salih Booker and William Minter entitled "Aid - let's get real," appearing in the July 8 issue of The Nation magazine (

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David Sogge, Give & Take: What's the Matter with Foreign Aid? London: Zed Books, 2002. 236 pages.

Chapter 9: End of the Beginning or Beginning of the End? (excerpts reposted with permission of the author)

A Summary Glance

Official aid and its institutions are vehicles of foreign policy. They may operate from a mixture of motives, but their mercantile and political purposes are never far from the surface of humanitarian and development discourse in which aid is packaged. Only rarely has official aid been harnessed to emancipatory purposes, such as to redistribute assets (Taiwan) or to bring about majority rule (South Africa). Official aid is but one of a number of foreign policy vehicles, and seldom the most important. Other instruments of trade, armed intervention and investment not only take precedence over aid, they can nullify it; policy incoherence is serious and widespread. ...

>From its earliest decades, foreign aid has been exposed to attack. Failures at the receiving end are attributed to recipients, who are charged with incapacity, bad governance, foot-dragging on reform and aid dependence. The aid system itself is also under fire, even from within the industry, reflecting rivalries within and among agencies, banks, and countries. Failure to find the right technical formula is a common type of criticism, as are overcentralisation and subordination to realpolitik. Some of these criticisms are valid, but they begin to make greater sense when set against wider patterns of power who wields it, and who doesn't and the democratic deficits such controversies bring into the open.

The structure and workings of aid chains, and of the ideas that constitute and drive them, add to democratic deficits. At the receiving end, the deficits tend to deepen and become more opaque. Pressure to tackle these problems, and thus to bring issues of power and powerlessness to the surface, has been growing in the South and North. Today, public processes of decision-making and how to promote them have at last come up for official discussion.

That is good news. Shifts are also detectable among a few aid agencies such as those of Denmark and Britain, and the UNDP. Some units in them seem ready to grasp the nettle of emancipatory politics. The bad news is that the top of the aid system, while deploring (for some audiences) the 'top-down economic focus of the eighties', is not about to abandon market fundamentalism, nor its powers to coerce and intrude at the receiving end.

... As this book has illustrated, the conventional aid system has not been a great success. Yet even failure has its uses. The aid system can't be consigned to the rubbish heap and ignored. It still represents a large and versatile constellation of money, expertise and networks that make and transmit ideas about how societies, polities and economies can be shaped and steered. Aid may no longer be first among equals, but it still counts.

It also enjoys a kind of residual popular indulgence. Public readiness to help the afflicted, come up for the underdog, and even to accept some redistribution as the price of social cohesion are also, miraculously, still around in most countries. Public support for aid is still somewhat buoyant, despite leakage due to increasing doubts that it does much good. When ranked with other issues, foreign aid is not a high priority for Western publics. Yet majorities in rich countries ritually affirm their wish to see misery curbed, especially at moments of catastrophe. Such attitudes rest on shifting and culture-bound mixes of guilt, duty, despair, fear and the wish to be seen to belong to respectable society. ... For decision-makers, the opinions of publics at large appear to be far less important than the influence of action groups, policy specialists, firms and nonprofits in a word, the aid lobby.


Obligations to respect capacities and promote talents

In their earnest pursuits of improving the human condition, most aid actors' grasp of capacities at the receiving end has been poor - often over-pessimistic, occasionally over-optimistic, and almost always non-historical, de-politicized and gender-blind. It is therefore not surprising that aid often fails to respect capacities and talents. How can these blinders be removed? On many practical fronts, bookcases, hard-drives and workshop agendas are already full; there is no need to rehearse those discussions here. In the heading of this paragraph, however, the operative word is obligation.

The 1990s saw the forward march through aid institutions like UNICEF, UNDP and Oxfam of the notion that poverty should be fought on the basis not of beneficence, but of rights. UN covenants and scores of official and civil institutions continue building grounds to protect civil and political rights. However, social and economic rights (ratified internationally in 1948) and even a 'right to development' (1986) have met resolute opposition from the IFIs and the US. That is no surprise. Market fundamentalist doctrine basically forbids anything that smacks of public claims by those disadvantaged by market forces unless of course the claimants are rich and well-connected.

... A major problem with social and economic rights is that no one is tasked with their enforcement. They remain dead letters. ...

More promising is the counterpart of rights: entitlements. These rest on political contracts between the state and citizens. Public institutions guarantee reciprocal rights and duties, but they extend beyond public services and taxation into the market (such as in regulating labour processes) and even the household (such as in juridical enforcement of paternity obligations).

Inspired by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, the entitlement approach takes capacities and talents seriously as 'capabilities'. These include, but going beyond the simple, and often Euro-centric, calculus of income and education levels. Where capabilities are denied or stunted because of market or other settings where bargaining strengths are unequal, the result is 'entitlement failure'. Addressing that systemic failure should become the core business of a new regime of redistribution to replace the current regime of aid.

Is this hopelessly utopian? There is a well-supported view that the consciences of Western publics have entered a 'twilight of duty'. There, Westerners expect to fulfill obligations to help the disadvantaged only if it is painless, and preferably fun, such as in TV extravaganzas and rock concerts for charity. Yet on wider planes of public policy, public sentiment is stronger. Principles of social solidarity and entitlement may be under attack, but they still underpin public policy in European social democracies.

Toward an Agenda

In light of these principles, what changes in the aid system would open ways toward emancipation from poverty and exclusion? What ways and means might be adopted, by whom, to secure whose entitlements?

Public Action Not Private Pre-emption

To halt the decay of governance and of reciprocal give and take between citizens and the state problems at the heart of so many aid failures two straightforward norms should be brought to bear:

* Promoting capabilities is, in general, a matter for public action; and

* Aid matters are, in general, public matters.

The public action approach, as developed by DrSze and Sen and others, insists that for-profit, non-profit and community-based sectors have public roles alongside the state. 'Public action includes not just what is done for the public by the state, but also what is done by the public for itself. The latter includes not merely the directly beneficial contributions of social institutions, but also the actions of pressure groups and political activists'. Public action involves collective, openly accountable means to combat public bads like pollution, crime and precarious livelihoods. It is also promotes public goods like water and drainage, efficient small claims courts, criminal justice systems and affordable transport. It allows definitions of entitlement, and of who warrants them, to change over time. It frames how problems and alternative solutions are identified, who takes decisions, and how joint endeavors may be organized in combinations of state, for-profit and non-profit actors. Choices of investment and the loans needed to realize them, about fighting inflation and unemployment, about access to and use of "the commons" and choices about how socially excluded or vulnerable people are to be protected are thus no longer matters of private actors nor of the state alone.

As a cluster of ideas, the public action approach has not yet crystallized. Thus far, national and sub-national settings have been its chief focus. For the aid system, a public action approach would mean paying attention to all levels, from the macro to the micro. Experiences from places like India, Philippines, and Brazil (and also the ghettos of Chicago and the northeast of Britain) suggest the ways public action can take root. Distilled and noted briefly here, focal points for overhaul of the aid system include:

Financial disarmament. In proportion to their colossal means, private financial interests contribute little to productive investment either directly or in tax revenues. Rules favouring them, especially freedoms from regulation and taxation, make possible dangerous criminal and military activities, and make impossible the fair sharing of rights and duties and reciprocity with public sectors. In short, they nullify aid's potentially positive effects. Those interests' influence over, among other things, the US Treasury, IMF and World Bank is unacceptable and should be broken.

Good Governance is for Aid-Givers Too. Democratic control is the obvious counterpart to financial disarmament. If bankers and bond traders wish to continue running things in our name, let them compete openly for votes just like ordinary politicians. Sermons about good governance at the receiving end would carry far more conviction, and chances of success, if public policy of aid providing lands were indeed more "public", and political competition financed far less by vested interests.

Transformation of the IFIs. Given their quasi-monopolistic positions in markets for development finance and public policy ideas, the IFIs should subjected to norms analogous to competition (or anti-trust) rules. They should be broken up. Ideally, their main functions should be moved out of the United States; the lopsided influence of that country's elites is inconsistent with democratic principles that could be reasonably expected of institutions claiming to respond to the global community of nations, especially the poorer ones. Private, policy activist pressures for reform merit support, but other initiatives, such as to fill the large democratic deficits in parliamentary control over the IFIs, and public commissions of inquiry into IFI impacts, should be promoted.

Move toward bloc transfers. Aid institutions must learn to let go, to end their preference for projects and hobbies, to smooth out the peaks and dips in flows, and to expand simple bloc grant transfers, exemplified today in publicly-controlled local development funds. Expanded to national levels, such approaches could boil down to donor-recipient negotiation, and the writing of checks to recipient authorities against publicly verified results, but without further agency involvement. Aid chains would be radically reduced, being maintained chiefly to ensure space for authentic public oversight and control. Aid can help protect and enlarge the political space where citizens can follow the money and results, and call those responsible to account if things go wrong. Such chains might preferably run via professional, municipal, and membership organizations rather than private aid agencies.

Bloc transfers to redress regional inequalities, neighborhood decay and disadvantage suffered by specific social groups is an old and hardly controversial idea. Northern European countries spend more than a third of their GDPs in redistributive programmes; the bulk of the European Union's total budget rests on them. They also influence thinking about aid to some of Europe's neighbors to the east. At global levels, official commitments reflected in anti-poverty targets agreed at conferences in the 1990s are but short steps away from public guarantees of effort (though they lack penalty clauses open to enforcement in courts of law); they are stepping-stones toward widening the global political constituency for entitlement- based approaches.

Redistribution downward, not upward

Redistribution from rich to poor is not what foreign aid really does -- nor supposed to do. Today, however, obstacles to that purpose are weakening and movements in support of it are reviving. The proposition that inequality is an inevitable and probably necessary feature of growth for forty-five years a major pillar of trickle-down economics has been demolished. Indeed inequality has been shown to hinder growth. Promoting greater equality is a good thing for other reasons, including greater socio-political inclusion and reduced social tension, resentment and violence.

Redistribution downward thus has both pragmatic and ethical arguments on its side. Concrete suggestions are emerging. The director of a major aid think-tank proposes as an additional global development goal, a ceiling on inequality. Political economists studying the feasibility of redistribution have identified seven types of policy instruments, and have estimated their usefulness in three kinds of settings: middle-income countries capable of redistribution with current income and assets; middle and most lower-income countries in which policies would work under a growth-with-redistribution regime; and very low-income countries where policies are unlikely to make much difference, so that growth itself would have to carry the burden for the time being. ...

Social movements and analysts in many countries have many options worth pursuing; some have already begun testing them, such as land reform in Brazil and public job schemes in India. Cross-fertilization of these ideas, and working alliances are clearly worth developing.

In every case a complex and delicate constellation of power factors will demand close attention. Targeting is one of them. If redistribution measures are to gain political momentum and be sustained, and if they are to avoid stigmatizing or marginalizing the poor as a distinct category, they will need support across social strata. Redistribution addresses poverty, but it is more than merely "anti-poverty". Social welfare policies in richer countries are secure because they are politically anchored in (lower) middle classes. This underscores the importance of a strategic aim: to "lock in" pro-poor entitlements by anchoring them in the broadest political constituencies possible without their being "captured" by the better-off. End trusteeship, build public politics.

Most of the above requires public politics, not merely administration, management and cookbook versions of "good governance". It requires filling democratic deficits. That is of course no simple thing. It needs great care and self-restraint. Where aid providers do not hold membership in emancipatory social movements (and most do not), they should avoid direct support to such movements. Rather, they can help expand the civic spaces in which emancipatory movements can flourish. Not blueprints, but processes are needed. This means paying attention to settings, and improvising. A typical process moves step by step from achievement of small victories to the gaining of confidence and allies, to the winning of wider victories, thence to challenging the rules of the game and negotiating new ones.

Even in settings with no traditions of public decision-making about collective goods, ways are being found that enable citizens to steer outside (conventional aid, and, eventually bloc grants) and local resources through public processes. The slow, culture-bound work of building institutions is vital. For outsiders the task is not, as in the conventional aid system, the imposition of models but the opening, analyzing and testing of alternatives among institutional frameworks (land reform, water access, market licensing, social insurance coverage, &c.) known to improve poor peoples' entitlements.

Similarly, public authorities and social movements can be helped not to march to the beat of the donors' drums but to gain policy knowledge useful in campaigns and negotiations. Public processes may be helped not by indoctrinating more technocrats in fundamentalist orthodoxies, but in promoting "economic literacy" and the oversight of public choices by way of local media, civil society watchdog groups, international monitoring bodies within regions, and technical advisory bodies with autonomy from both business and government. These measures can be combined in ways that strengthen trust and public control at the receiving end. If trust between citizens and states improves, so too do the chances of give and take, of collecting taxes and fees, and thus of ending aid dependence.

It may be clear from a reading of this book that aid agencies are themselves part of an institutional framework -- the aid regime -- that continues to fall far short of its potentials. Conventional aid and its chains have too often been constraining, even crippling. Their replacement will not herald a millenarian end to suffering and injustice. A more modest, even boringly normal aim would be the mere provision, broadly and fairly, of that to which people are entitled.


Message-Id: <> From: "Africa Action" <> Date: Fri, 28 Jun 2002 20:22:43 -0500 Subject: Africa: From Aid to Entitlement

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar

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