Complain about how someone is doing something long enough and you’re likely to get a version of this classic response: “If you’re so unhappy with it, then do it yourself!”
The rising importance of emerging donors proves that developing countries have decided to do just that in an effort to correct the ills of development work and foreign aid. Traditional donors have proven to be either unwilling or unable to shift practices in response to critiques – so nations who still receive assistance also now give assistance to others to show us how it’s done.
One of the most common critiques developing countries offer of traditional aid is the limited role recipients play in decision-making and implementation. Right away, emerging donors made it clear that their development assistance would be different from traditional donors by referring to it as “international cooperation” rather than “foreign aid.” Cooperation puts both parties on an equal level; foreign aid is a hierarchical arrangement in which the donor controls the process while the recipient may have little say in the final form of funding.
This idea of equality in decision-making dominates most of the practices of emerging donors. The Organization for Economic Cooperation’s Task Team on South-South Cooperation points out that developing nations emphasize communication between parties and full participation of both donor and partner throughout the entire process. International cooperation arrangements are also meant to be reciprocal, meaning that the emerging donor will also benefit from the project or connection. Finally, emerging donors respect sovereignty – projects fit in with what a government is already doing or what they would like to see done in their country.
This new approach to foreign aid appears to be a response to the troubles developing nations have experienced with traditional donors – primarily that recipients are largely voiceless in the development process. No surprise there. But where is the in-depth research discussing the outcomes of the new development assistance?
In 2010, Brazil published the first report on its development assistance activities. In 2011 China published a white paper on its own development assistance activities. Aside from those two major players, very little data or reporting is available on funding from emerging donors. Even trilateral projects, in which an emerging donor, traditional donor and recipient country work together, have very little information available on the emerging donor’s activity or perceptions of their work by traditional aid workers.
Lacking information means no evaluation of effectiveness. No evaluation of effectiveness, according to current trends among development workers from a variety of organizations, means no stable program growth, progress in refining methods, or good investment in development.
Emerging donors can play an important role in development as trust and equity characterize their relationships with partner countries, while distrust and dissatisfaction characterize a vast number of traditional foreign aid relationships. That role cannot be refined or harnessed properly, however, until academics and policymakers understand where emerging donors’ strengths lie and what that means for traditional aid programs.
Traditional donors, rather than viewing emerging donors as competition, should view them as entities that can accomplish the tasks that developed nations can’t, or as partners who can help improve foreign aid through trilateral partnership.
What this doesn’t mean is that traditional donors should attempt to train emerging donors in how to give aid. The whole raison d’etre of international cooperation is to correct the mistakes of traditional aid, not to repeat them.
What it does means is that foreign aid to major emerging donors needs to fund better evaluation and statistical tracking and international cooperation administration in general. By giving emerging donors and academics alike the tools to assess results and progress, traditional donors can support the strengthening of international cooperation for future success.