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International Cooperation: reality or farce?

Posted by / 7th April 2015 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , / -


International development cooperation has been heavily criticised over the past decades. Both methods and objectives have been questioned, and involved actors are regularly accused of ineffective behaviour. What is less often analysed, however, is the human psychology on which international cooperation is based. Political motivations are often highlighted, and so are financial incentives, but the underlying patterns regulating those involved in the sector are all too often ignored. This is not a minor oversight. International cooperation actors are trapped in pre-existing psychological structures. These indirectly, and often unwittingly, create tendencies that corrupt the essential process and its true objectives. The main issue here is that cooperation in its true form is virtually impossible in the current sectoral psychology.

On the psychology of cooperation

The meaning of cooperation in international development cooperation can be described as ambiguous at best. It replaced more aid-based terms from the early days on, but the actual nature of the sector never quite made the same leap. Regardless, humans display a unique form of altruistic cooperation that is unprecedented in any other species on earth. Explanations vary from genetic predisposition to social awareness. In its most basic form, cooperation is defined as “the action or process of working together to the same end”. This means that both or all actors involved have a direct stake in the process. These actors can be individuals or groups, and cooperative individuals must have, amongst other factors, an underlying motivation to incur personal losses in return for improved common well being. The key here is “common wellbeing”.

Beyond that basic definition, it is clear that if humans can expect some kind of service or emotion in return for their action, they are much more likely to cooperate. Researchers find that human cooperation, on the scale as we can observe is attributable to prosocial cognition in the human psyche, clear groupings as well as cultural norms and institutions. These prosocial emotions make us sensitive to empathy; shame and guilt as well as social sanctions that could result from e.g. free riding. As such, humans are capable to differentiate between individuals or groups that are willing to cooperate – and tend to be drawn towards those individuals – and those who have solely egocentric intentions. Especially small-scale close-knit groups tend to be very sensitive to individual’s emotional capability to engage with others and cooperate.

Buchan et al (2011)  show in their research that willingness to cooperate and to risk losses varies dramatically over different social self-ascriptions. During their experiments, differentiating between local, regional and global individuals’ inclination to engage in cooperation depended on their sense of belonging to those groups. Few participants identified themselves with the global society, but those who did, displayed striking tendencies. Strong identification with the global society emerged as the sole indicator for willingness to contribute to global welfare: those who displayed this readiness were not influenced by whether their investment would pay off or not. The researchers conclude that conditional on self-identification, global altruism exists just as it does at lower scale levels.

At group level, cooperation looks slightly different, but remains based on similar principles. Groups are formed on the basis of mutual attributes that give individuals a sense of belonging to a specific group, such as cultural, language, political, religious or ethnic groups. Once established as a group, its maintenance is crucial, especially in competition with other groups. When inter-group competition is high, intra-group cooperation tends to function well. Generally, most cultures share prosocial values such as empathy or care for others’ suffering. In comparison, when no external pressures exist, intra-group cooperation tends to suffer, as individuals have fewer incentives to stick together. Even worse, when very high pressures are exerted on groups, their cooperative mechanisms tend to break down and be replaced by individual quests for survival. This last scenario can be observed in these situations of high social distress such as during wars, famines or economic crises.

On the psychology of the international cooperation sector

We therefore have a basic understanding of what cooperation is supposed to look like, and what some of its characteristics are. If we apply that idea to the international development sector, the first problem we face is how to identify cooperative individuals and groups, and with whom do they cooperate? At first sight the idea is perhaps that NGOs cooperate with local “beneficiaries” – please note how this word does not correspond to the definition of cooperation given above – and donors to accomplish outcomes in their field of expertise, such as economic development or human rights. In reality, however, local groups are typically consulted, but not cooperative partners. True cooperation exists between the NGO and the donor, or, in broader terms, the executive organisations and their funding partners. Their mutual goals are quite clearly defined: survival of the respective organisations through implementing common agendas. In this process, the role of local beneficiaries is passive. They do not represent true value in the cooperation equation, besides perhaps having a vaguely defined common goal of making lives better. The hard incentives to cooperate – funding, jobs, organisational survival, evaluations – are all between executive partners and funding partners. Idealism and gratitude are not satisfying conditions to reach true cooperation; they do not represent enough of an incentive, despite the sector’s appearances.

Understanding the imbalanced relationship between groups in international development cooperation opens a new perspective on its past failures and current realities. Many initiatives were created with altruistic intentions, often with the vision of bringing along sustainable change. However, the misunderstanding of cooperation and misuse of the word have lead to the establishment of ineffective mechanisms and programmes. Recipients were never truly part of the process while donors continued to operate on a system that was geared towards themselves rather than the outer world.

The recent economic crisis hit the developments sector particularly hard. Not only did the sector suffer under extreme budget cuts by donor governments and international organisations leading to financial gaps and instability, but it also faced an increasingly distressed developing world suffering under the pressures of the global economic turmoil. Many developing countries faced increased trade prices, and constantly shifting commodity prices bringing along extreme instability and little ability to plan ahead. The reaction by NGOs and other executive actors clearly showed where their true cooperative nature lies. Long-term programmes such as the Millenium Development Goal implementation plan were minimised. Many target countries and governments had to reassess their prospects and curb their progress. The shift towards self-preservation rather than international cooperation were dramatic and self-explanatory: in times of distress groups protect themselves first, rather than pretend cooperation with outsiders (local beneficiaries).  While these observations are barely surprising in the light of human cooperation and the need for self-preservation, they do hurt the vision the development sector portrays. Rather than truly caring for advancing developing countries, the sector’s work is hampered by reality and limits that donors are not willing to cross for the sake of international wellbeing.

Humans have an essential sense for self-preservation. Humans also have a unique trait for social interaction and altruistic behaviour. Hence supporting each other is just as much part of being human as it is to fight for survival. At the local level, cooperation is based on the mutual understanding that cooperation will advance the wellbeing of the group as one entity. At the international level, the overall benefits of cooperation are less clear, often phrased as increasing well being for recipients. Not only is it difficult to call international development cooperation, as groups within the sector never truly embraced it, but also visible positive effects of international development cooperation remain difficult to identify.

With growing understanding that the lack of incentives to cooperate with recipients left several development challenges unsolved, an opportunity for change is created. If the sector with all its member groups – donors, executives and recipient – understood the need for change, true cooperation could be achieved. It can be based on mutually engaging and trustful relationships where all partnering groups join mutually beneficial efforts to advance development. Just as we do one on one, international development cooperation taking into account global dependencies, could move towards being true cooperation if donors let go off their self-centred bias and recipients were to participate fully.  Various initiatives have already recognised the need for change and work towards enacting true and unbiased cooperation. With introspection and an outward-looking mind-set, the development sector can shift towards a more equal future.


MDGs, SDGs and the road to change: An outlook for sustainable development


Fourteen years into the 21st century global poverty and underdevelopment remain a crucial problem for millions of humans. At the turn of the millennium, the United Nations (UN) and other international organisations rallied to announce the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), setting the path to change the livelihoods of those living in poverty by 2015. The goals ranged from reducing global poverty by half, to providing universal primary education to everyone as well as halting the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS or malaria. As ambitious and idealistic as the goals were, as detached they were from reality in their method and procedure. Instead of focusing on the people on the ground, including them in the process and ensuring that the goals were feasible, the stakeholders rushed to spread the news of change with bold statements and glorious outlooks to the near future. As a result today – one year before the MDG agenda expires – the outcomes are far from complete. While some significant results have been achieved, such as the reduction of global poverty and improvement of health standards, other goals require more effort and dedication.

Today, not enough attention is given to the structural failures of the MDG design, which was built on donor interests rather than developing countries’ needs. Instead, currently the same stakeholders who designed the MDG agenda are feeding a heated debate about the post-2015 framework including the development of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Without taking the time to understand the underlying misconceptions about global development and the need for the inclusion of local actors, the coming agenda is bound to fail.

The flawed design of cooperation

The MDGs were crafted on a very short notice in the late 1990s. At the turn of the century, international organisations and donor governments decided to use the momentum of turning millennia and organise for long-lasting change. In only fifteen years the decision-makers sought to – amongst others – eradicate absolute poverty (humans living on less than 1$ per day) and significantly reduce child and mother mortality. The process resulting in the proclaimed eight MDGs with 18 targets and 48 indicators has been described as top-down, westernised and incognizant of voices from developing countries. The main criticisms are that the UN, which as an institution in itself is dominated by western nations, who also are the main donors in development cooperation, has driven the MDG process. Furthermore, the supporting institutions as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank pressured participating nations to follow a development agenda suiting western interests and hegemonic structures. While serving western interests little space and attention was left to incorporate the needs of local people or developing nations. Even more severe was the disregard of national circumstances such as historical burdens, environmental dangers as well as vulnerability due to other causes. Thus it does not come as a surprise that in many developing countries no coherent MDG processes were incorporated resulting in poor outcomes of the MDG agenda.

In the past efforts to support local people have been made on various levels. The execution lacked the transfer of project ownership to the people. Donors held on to their own agendas without allowing for genuine local lead. As a consequence sustainable local development did not become a widespread movement because donors failed to give adequate solutions to the causes of underdevelopment. Therefore local people remain dependent on donors.

Western donors are having difficulty knowing about local needs because they are not measurable and difficult to advertise. It is not in the donor’s and global institutions’ interest to support individuals in developing countries and transfer them the power to change. Furthermore, developing countries do not enter negotiations on an equal level, marked from the long history of skewed cooperation mechanisms. On top of that regional, cultural and historical differences frame development cooperation today as much as they did throughout its past. As a result countries that have received development assistance over a long time carry the burden of previous agreements and are heavily indebted towards donors. This hinders current negotiations from being unbiased and fair. Also, two structural flaws are apparent: Local people are not included into national development plans and national governments have trouble being accountable actors to their electorate while having to following donors’ agendas. Caused by this discrepancy, today’s development cooperation is biased towards the donor, following their lead rather than strong governments’ from developing countries representing their people’s needs.

The new agenda

With the MDG period drawing to a close at the end of 2015, a new agenda is currently drafted. At the heart of the post-2015 agenda are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which have been designed since the early 2010s and will replace the MDGs. At the core of the SDG is the aim to focus on environmental problems and combine the quest against poverty with measures against climate change. By the time of implementation, the SDGs will consist of similar targets and indicators, in essence continuing the legacy of the MDGs. Similar to the MDGs; the SDGs are being drafted throughout a series of High-Level meetings involving stakeholders from multiple counties. Actors from the south raise their voices claiming the right to be involved in the drafting process, especially in the light of the failures within the previous MDG process.

Necessary ingredients for change

Observing how the global community develops and implements abovementioned frameworks underlines inherent problems. Global indicators with measurable outputs and outcomes are far detached from the individual human living in a developing country. Certainly the ideal scenario expected within the MDG/SDG framework would entail a trickle-down implementation where national leaders develop strategies that work within the MDG’s vision and support individuals. However, little action has been observed.

The essential question is whether national governments are willing and equipped to support local change and development, but also – whether they should. Developing countries as aid-recipients and shapers of their own national future need to be heard when global policies are crafted. Western leadership and proactivity aiming at sustainable change can only be successful when interacting with developing countries in a serious and unbiased manner. Otherwise development cooperation becomes a farce disguising western interests without truly devoting itself to alleviating developing countries. Such policy includes the establishment of feasible implementation plans at regional and country-level as well as a move away from geostrategic interests and prioritisation aligned to trade interests.

Simultaneously, local people need to be included in national plans. More recognition of local efforts through governmental support and global development plans would have aided the quest of the MDGs and resulted in better outcomes. The power of local change and its triggering effect at regional or even national levels may not be underestimated. On the contrary, global development plans using the inspiration and force of local people are most likely to incur significant change. Local people know what they are missing and a capable of assessing previous failures. The power of local change can transform the development sector if used accordingly. Together with national governments – acting as the middleman between donors and individuals – those stakeholders are the key to sustainable change. The interplay between local, regional, national and global level must become more coherent and focused.

Advancing human development, changing people’s livelihoods and increasing their resilience is most effective if it is an effort sought after by the people themselves. Individual people and local communities know best what they need and where their weaknesses are. Therefore, they ought to be consulted for the design of development agendas. Those agendas need to be adapted to local specifications and supported by the administration. In that case, instead of following global agendas, national governments will request global money for local solutions. If local people became the leaders of their own development they would make choices that they deem most suitable, and support the necessary efforts to develop sustainably.

Therefore, developing nations taking the center stage of the current post-2015 process and raising their voice will have the power to change their futures. Governments as true representatives of their people advocating for their needs, will turn the SDG process towards becoming inclusive and local-led, and thus more effective. Developing countries must use the momentum – the creation of a post-2015 agenda – and turn it into a southern momentum. A success of the MDG process was the placement of development efforts on the global agenda. For the first time global development actors decided to cooperate in order to solve global poverty together. As flawed as the MDG process may have been, as useful it was to tie development efforts together. Now, in the second stage of global development, developing countries need to enter the drafting process with clear cut requirements that will help the nations to advance as well as incorporate the needs and ambitions of individuals in order to make development the process it should had always been: a unified effort between individuals, groups and their representatives.



The Future of Offical Development Assistance

Posted by / 3rd July 2014 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , , / -

Official Development Assistance has failed. Donor and recipient activities in the past decades have shown little success, and ongoing practices and ideas are subject of continuous criticism. What are the lessons learned and is the criticism valid? This article elaborates on those questions by shedding light on two cases from the 1990s in which the World Bank implemented reform programs in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Their successes were negligible.

Why ODA is controversial

“Aid” in itself has been divided in many subcategories and types, representing a multitude of different targets and aims. Humanitarian and relief aid serve immediate needs while structural adjustment programs and the millennium development goals are set out for the longer term. They aim to sustainably improve people’s livelihoods. So far there is little evidence to suggest that the billions of dollars circulating have actually had a positive effect. On the contrary, it is increasingly argued that development aid fails to achieve its proposed effects, and in some cases it even worsens the situation. Often this happens through increased government accountability to donors instead of the electorate, resulting in the deterioration of stability and decreased focus on local needs and progress.

Quantitative analysis found that countries receiving ODA over the course of decades are more likely to show decreasing quality of governance and democracy.  Furthermore, it seems that ODA is primarily given to countries that are able to present some minimum level of good governance already. Consequently, those countries that are most in need of support systems are less likely to receive aid. Certainly, it is understandable that donor organizations and governments refrain from giving aid to countries that are incapable of processing aid money. However, these countries should be given more attention and care.

The role of influential International Financial Institutions (IFIs) such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund is controversial. Their neoliberal political agenda is imposed on recipient nations through money lending programs, which condemn recipient governments to follow the specific requirements, posed by the IFIs disregarding any national attempts to develop towards a different political and economic model. The most prominent example is conditionality based lending, where recipient states are forced to implement certain conditions in order to receive financial support. Most often these conditions are related to changes in governance and increased democratization.

Originally conditions were designed to ensure that recipient states would be equipped and prepared to receive and process the incoming financial support. However, contrary to initial expectations, many recipient countries felt that the conditions were defined by the IFIs following their neoliberal development perspectives rather than national and local interests. As a result most conditionality-based programs are described as failures today.

Conditionality-based lending was most prominent in the 1980s and 1990s, a period in which many countries emerged from civil wars or dictatorships and were seeking to establish democratic nation states. It would be beyond the scope of this article to elaborate on the ‘West’s’ interests in this process. However, it needs to be clear that industrialized nations, especially the United States had and continues to have strong interests in many countries, especially in Latin America and the Middle East. This resulted in strong tendencies towards neoliberal development.

The Case of Guatemala and Nicaragua

Nicaragua and Guatemala are two examples of countries that have been subject to lending programs in the 80s and 90s after having emerged from civil conflict just recently before.

Nicaragua looks back at a violent past of a decade long kleptocracy by the Somoza family in the 1970s, followed by the guerilla dictatorship of the Sandinistas between 1979 and 1990. In first free public elections political and social change was introduced under the leadership of elected President Chamorro. The country entered a phase of reconciliation, reintegration and de-politicization of armed security forces. As part of the reform process decentralization and increased local accountability away from Nicaragua’s capital Managua were initiated. While the process was hampered by a lack of coordination among state actors and failure to bridge gaps between local and national interests, the international donor community entered the debate. Its considerable financial support effectively dominated the political dialogue and steered decisions towards its own interest.

In this situation the World Bank introduced an institutional reform program in 1995. It was designed to reform twenty ministries, reduce personnel costs and bureaucracy while increasing wages and technological advancement. In total US$ 33 million was invested. The reform was designed to run over five years, envisioning that each year five ministries would successfully reform their organizational structure, redesign its human resource sector and be fully equipped with new technology.

In the World Bank’s 2002 evaluation report, the results are rather moderate. Instead of twenty, only seven ministries underwent any parts of the reform. The other ministries decided to continue evolving on their own pace and agenda. Furthermore, the leadership and execution of the reform, which was supposed to be managed by a Nicaraguan government agency, was hampered by high fluctuation of personnel and unsatisfactory commitment. As a result, the evaluation report assesses the result of the reform as ‘likely’ sustainable. Given the minimal outcome and lack of compliance by Nicaragua’s government, this assessment is highly optimistic and far from reality.

The project had a relevant objective. However, in its entirety it appears to be detached from the political reality of Nicaragua at entry time as well as during its execution. It failed to acknowledge that Nicaragua was a country in transition with a lack of many democratic features; effectively leading to deterioration of people’s trust in democracy. The World Bank’s project contributed to the decrease in trust and lack of government effectiveness, through mistaking its own priorities with the country’s needs. Therefore, its millions spent failed to reach any of the project’s long-term goals.

A similar situation occurred in Guatemala, which was subject of a World Bank reform program some years before Nicaragua. Similar to Nicaragua, Guatemala suffered under a civil war up to the 1980s. In 1985 a new constitution was approved in order to secure peace and democracy. It took ten more years to put an end to the civil war, with yearlong peace talks between governing parties, UN representatives and foreign mediators. The peace treaty involved the establishment of a human rights accord, a demilitarization treaty and an accord on the rights of indigenous people as well as one on socio-economic advancement, centered on poverty alleviation.

Given the political developments, the World Bank’s involvement clearly shows the absurdity surrounding some ODA programs: In 1988 already it introduced a municipal development project that was designed to reform the municipality’s organizational structure, reorganize urban planning and thereby reduce urban poverty. Over the set out timeframe of ten years, the project constituted ten percent of all ODA received by the Guatemalan government.

From the outset, the reform was doomed to fail, as the initial loan disbursement was withheld: Guatemala’s creditworthiness could not be guaranteed. Later, in 1993 the loan disbursements were stopped entirely due to the lack of Guatemalan counterpart commitment. Furthermore, the government issued new laws that rendered the further implementation of the reform infeasible. As a result the main goals of the project were never achieved. Nonetheless, the results report describes the entire project as “satisfactory with likely sustainability”.

After 1995 the Guatemalan government implemented various reforms with similar aims as the ones stated in the World Bank reform program. However, they did so following their own agenda.

In the two cases presented the World Bank failed to acknowledge that the governments were not prepared to take the burden of intrusive structural reform and were incapable to implement it. As a result millions are lost with little measureable future effect. The political environment in both countries continues to be instable.

Where to steer in the future

Two contradictory directions for future involvement have been suggested: Firstly, donors argue that not enough money has been spent yet and once aid flows cross a certain threshold, their desired effects will be observed. In other words, more money is needed. Secondly, the development sector is becoming increasingly aware that its foreign involvement may have been more harmful than supportive, at least on a large scale.

The evidence so far clearly favors the second perspective. ODA has been more harmful than fruitful. ODA’s intrusive conditions force recipient governments to accurately follow IFI agendas, disregarding national political characteristics that might ask for different approaches to development. However, ODA must not be condemned it its entirety. If IFIs decide loosen their conditions and allow for more national ownership, the future of ODA could be bright. As the two case studies show, strictly prescribed ODA does not help. On the contrary, it may be misallocated and push for a development that is not supported within the recipient government. Seeing that the government of Guatemala did implement municipal reforms some years after the World Bank project, it is clear that the need for change is recognized locally, but it needs to follow its natural pace. ODA needs to become more flexible, allowing for recipient countries to choose who to collaborate with and which reforms to implement. Once the IFIs let go of their agendas, ODAs worst critics might be silenced and the road towards success could be revealed.