An expert opinion on development: Dr. Stephan Klingebiel

Posted by / 17th November 2014 / Categories: Opinion, Polis / -

Dr. Stephan Klingebiel is head of the department for Bi- and Multilateral Development Cooperation at the German Development Institute (DIE). His work areas include aid effectiveness and the political economy of aid, international cooperation and global public goods as well as the nexus of security and development. He is also a regular visiting professor at Stanford University.

Joanna Klever – Head of Communications at The Polis Project: Could you please tell us your experiences with, and current connection to, the development sector?

Stephan Klingebiel: I have been working on development issues since my years as a student at university. That was still the time of the classical North-South divide – just think about the Brandt Report in 1980 which was written by an independent international commission.

In my professional carrier I research development topics,  teach courses on the subject and am also involved in policy advice, for example, at the level of the European Commission, the European Parliament, the OECD and the German and other governments. In addition, I gained much experience as a development practitioner when I was head of the German Development Bank (KFW) office in Rwanda for four years.

In terms of main areas of research, I especially deal with topics from three perspectives – quite often with overlaps: First, I like to study the basics of foreign aid and the political economy aspects of aid. For example: What is the rationale of donors in giving foreign aid? What are the unintended consequences of aid? Increasingly, I find myself dealing with the broader question of how international cooperation can address global challenges more adequately. Secondly, I have a strong focus on governance and conflict issues: How do development actors interact with non-state armed groups, for instance – even if they claim that they are not in contact with any of them? Thirdly, my main area of expertise is related to the sub-Saharan African region. I am not only very familiar with several countries of the region but also with regional and continental institutions. Having said that, I also work on countries outside the African region.

JK: How do you define successful international development?

SK: International cooperation can serve quite different objectives. However, we are increasingly seeing a need to contribute to the provision of global public goods or to avoid ‘global public bads’. Thus, cooperation is a way of organising collective action at an international level. From what we know, it is not at all easy to provide incentives in favour of global collective action and to avoid difficulties like ‘free riding’.

JK: What – in your opinion – are the biggest failures and successes of development cooperation thus far?

SK: In a general sense it is interesting to see that development actors have built up quite substantial knowledge about ‘best practises’ and ‘good aid’. This has led not least to the aid effectiveness agenda – including the Paris Declaration. At the same time, however, we know that donors have only been willing to implement their own agenda to a limited extent. For example, the fragmented landscape of donor approaches has to do with interests such as visibility. If you go to a country like Myanmar where donors have only started to work fairly recently, you will find strong motivations for each donor to rush in, rather than following best practices.

JK: In the “Beyond Aid” series of papers, the need to reform aid and transform development cooperation is recurrent. Could you briefly explain why this change is essential in the current context?

SK: In the face of a changing global context, development cooperation needs to redefine its role. The phrase “Beyond Aid” sums up the pressure to innovate as well as to develop ideas for reform. Conventional development issues still need to be addressed, as goals such as the eradication of poverty have not been achieved. At the same time, the development landscape is changing radically. Over the past few decades, the number of aid-receiving countries has decreased sharply. By 2030 it is estimated that another 28 countries with an aggregate population of 2 billion will no longer be eligible for development cooperation. Other fundamental features are also changing. Aid no longer serves only to reduce poverty; it is also being used to tackle challenges such as climate change, inequality and insecurity.

The “Beyond Aid” debate is quite diverse. It is about any actual or apparent reform in this policy area. Nonetheless, some dimensions have become obvious. The transformation is specifically evident in connection with actors, finance, regulation and knowledge. In our papers we discuss those four dimensions in detail.

In our view, the debate may lead to two different options or models. In a first model, development cooperation would focus on the steadily shrinking group of poor countries. Poverty reduction would remain the primary goal. […]

In a second model, development cooperation would become part of international cooperation in general. It would help to address challenges that many countries have in common. Such challenges include rapid urbanisation, demographic change, and the provision of global public goods such as the protection of the climate, biodiversity, food security and the prevention of pandemics. While poverty reduction would remain a major goal in this scenario, it would no longer be the main focus. Moreover, distinguishing ‘developed’ from ‘developing’ countries would no longer be crucial. On the contrary, policies would concern not only fragile and conflict-torn states but middle- and high-income countries as well. Development cooperation would thus contribute to collective action at the global level.

JK: With the post 2015 approaching, developing countries are asking to have their voices heard more in the process. How do you envision their participation with developed countries? What do developing nations need most to achieve true partnership, rather than the perceived imposition?

SK: I think we really need to see a universal development agenda. The current MDG agenda is unbalanced because it is mainly focused on development challenges in poor countries. However, an agenda with a universal character would address development need in all regions and countries. Just think about CO2 emissions in industrialised countries or inequality issues not only in developing regions but also in the USA, Germany or Spain. If the main momentum of the future agenda is to be its universal character, developing countries will play a much stronger role, for example, in the implementation of the agenda.

JK: Envisioning true cooperation, how can local populations be more included in the reformed development cooperation system? How can local development be supported?

SK: In my view the principle of ‘using country systems’ is an important starting point for this issue. The best way for a local population to contribute through local NGOs and CSOs is not the isolated approach to aid. Instead, we need to focus on issues like: What is the role of local NGOs in the budget planning and execution process of district X or Y? This is the key question. In the best case, donors would use precisely those national mechanisms. If this is not possible, for instance because of poor governance or a conflict situation in a country, at least transparency is a crucial factor for the local population. How much money is being provided by a donor? How much money is really reaching the district? How much money is paid for overheads and consultants? Those are important aspects of information which are required if the local population is to be involved.

JK: You state in your “Beyond Aid” papers series: “Knowledge to drive the new development agenda and to meet partner countries’ differentiated needs is becoming more and more specialised and is generated by many institutions that are outside the realm of development cooperation. The challenge is to identify and share that knowledge and apply it to specific contexts.” How can this challenge be met with new technologies?

SK: New technologies are indeed key for all aspects of knowledge. Whether the focus is on updating farming methods, improving public finance or taking action to mitigate climate change, knowledge is the key to development. The transfer of knowledge is likely to become increasingly dissociated from financial transfers and technical advice.

JK: New alternatives and approaches are developed in the sector, which aim at turning aid into effective cooperation. How can they be heard and effectively contribute to today’s development discourse?

SK: Results-based approaches are not a ‘silver bullet’ to development cooperation but rather a fairly innovative way of how to provide aid. Those approaches aim to identify outputs or outcomes that can be measured and quantified, that is, results that can be directly linked to development activities. The key feature is the link between the aid intervention and strong incentives to encourage results. Not least NGOs are increasingly exploring those instruments, for example in the educational sector in Tanzania.

JK: How do you envision development cooperation in twenty years? Will it still exist, and what will its activities look like?

SK: I think it is quite likely that we will see two parallel mid-term trends: First, development cooperation will still exist for a shrinking number of poor countries. Aid will remain important in those cases, in support not only of the social sectors but also of other prime infrastructures. Emerging countries will also contribute concessional resources in support of development objectives. Secondly, we will see an increasing demand for new types of international cooperation which is different from development cooperation – just think about the quite different rationale in the case of Ebola. Those areas of international cooperation will need to address global challenges, for instance in terms of security, climate change and health.


This is the first edition of our new series of interviews with experts from the field of dcvelopment cooperation. Within this series The Polis team will explore different themes and perspectives on international development cooperation. These interviews will appear in our bimonthly newsletter as well as on this website.


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The Polis Team's publications focus on local-global realationships, problems and solutions. All Polis Team publications are related to The Polis, ReSeT's flagship project.

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