November 23, 2011

Busan: A defining moment for development: Where will CIDA stand?

(an edited version of this Op Ed is published today in Embassy)

Next week, two heads of state, ministers from over 100 countries, the leaders of more than 40 international organizations, and over 2000 individuals will gather in Busan, South Korea, for the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (HLF-4). 

With the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness having effectively expired in 2010, Busan represents a key moment for donors and partner governments to reaffirm and implement existing commitments, and to work with a whole new set of development actors to define a forward looking agenda and framework for aid and international co-operation.

The outcomes of Busan also represent a defining moment for CIDA, in terms of the priorities it sets for itself post-Busan and for Canadian international cooperation over the next five years.

What should some of those priorities be? There are several, but three that could find some traction with the Canadian government in the coming years.

Firstly, transparency of aid allocation, but also aid execution, and its impact for poor and vulnerable populations.

Over the past year, CIDA has taken some important steps forward in terms of its own transparency. In June, it launched a new open data portal for all its projects and programs, with additional content expected in the coming months. In September, Canada also signed on to the Open Government Partnership, a multinational initiative that promotes more open, accountable, effective and transparent governance.

In Busan, the government could go one step further by setting out a timetable for committing to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), where currently 19 donors, multilateral organizations and several NGOs have signed up to a set of common standards on publishing aid information. CIDA’s current open data portal could easily be made compatible with phase one of IATI. The apparent hesitation by CIDA to sign on to phase two (and IATI itself) lies in the implications for substantial translation that would come with committing to a more comprehensive degree of disclosure in phase two. All donors recognize the need for time to meet technical and legal requirements. What we are suggesting is a commitment in a reasonable timeframe to provide Canadians with the information they need to assess the substance of Canada’s aid programs and policies, beyond basic data on projects. Signing on to IATI could bring CIDA kudos from other donors, while allowing the Agency to spread out the commitment over a manageable timeframe.

But that is not the full story on transparency. Governments and citizens in partner countries also want to know how CIDA’s money is being spent. To help achieve this, CIDA should implement the commitment it made in Accra in 2008 at the last High Level Forum and lay out rolling three to five year country allocations for its aid. This would provide some degree of predictability to southern governments who must plan their own budget priorities. Forward aid allocation targets by all donors will not only assist governments in their planning, but will also enable parliaments and citizens to debate priorities for their domestic budgets.  In this regard, CIDA should also support the capacities of parliamentarians, civil society, and the media to monitor and interpret donor and budget information for their citizens.

Secondly, balancing results with outcomes.

In an age of budget cuts, and flat-lined or declining aid budgets, parliamentarians are demanding that every penny a donor spends be linked to tangible results and demonstrate “value for money”. The public, we are told, wants results. Of course they do. But they also want to see sustained reductions in poverty and inequality. They want to know that kids have a school to go to, but they also support universal primary education as a right, not a privilege. And while it is easy to measure the number of students going to school, it is much more difficult to address the quality of the education provided and its real impact on the life chances of these children.  Canadians also want to see women get access to credit so that they can start up their own business, or have the right to own property, but they also realize that equality between men and women does not happen in a matter of weeks or even years.

Short term results are important indicators of progress, but more important are sustained outcomes that guarantee those results over the long term for poor and vulnerable people. The challenge of measuring longer-term less tangible outcomes – like strengthening citizens’ capacities to monitor government delivery of health services – has always been the rationale for focusing more on short-term results, like the number of children vaccinated. But CIDA doesn’t have to choose one or the other. It can balance tangible results that are important for the Agency and for Canadians, with support for less measureable outcomes that are important to, and defined by, the constituencies with which it is working – partner governments, civil society North and South, and beneficiaries. Given the chance, Canada’s aid partners will likely be quite innovative in articulating the “results” they want and how to go about measuring them.

Finally, a new partnership with civil society.

Three years ago civil society organizations (CSOs), responsible for more than $25 billion in development resources, were challenged in the last High Level Forum to improve their effectiveness and be more accountable.  Since 2008, a CSO-led global Open Forum on CSO Development Effectiveness held more than seventy national consultations with 3500 organizations.  In September 2010 they agreed on a set of Principles to guide civil society in their contribution to development as independent development actors, complementary but distinct from the actions of governments and donors. The Istanbul Principles, and the International Framework for CSO Development Effectiveness, are two key inputs for the High Level Forum. Their inclusion in the outcome document is an important nod to the key role civil society plays in development, and the principles it has proposed to define its work.

CIDA played a hugely important role prior to the Accra High Level Forum in laying the ground work for this recognition of civil society as development actors. Post Busan, CIDA could develop a strategy which comprehensively addresses how it will work with civil society in the context of the Istanbul Principles. Such a strategy could accommodate the Agency’s ambitions for being more effective, and the place for civil society within this strategy.  But it must also recognize and support the diversity of roles -- in policy dialogue, in learning and knowledge development, in public engagement and education, and as agents of change – outside of their traditional roles in humanitarian relief or service delivery to poor populations. 

The enabling environment for civil society, particularly in holding governments to account or empowering marginalized populations, has been under attack in many countries since the last High Level Forum in 2008.  Canada, along with other like-minded donors, government officials and civil society, must take the initiative in Busan to agree that basic human rights standards are essential if civil society is to effectively contribute to development.

Busan is a defining moment for aid and international cooperation. We hope that CIDA’s response will be a defining moment for Canadian development cooperation.

Julia Sanchez is the President-CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC). CCIC is a Member of the Coordinating Group of BetterAid, which represents civil society on the Sherpa team negotiating the final draft Outcome Document for Busan. She will be in Busan. 

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