Norway just got a gold medal for development aid, ranked as the best donor country by the donors’ own reporting body called Organisation for Cooperation and Development (OECD), currently with 34 industrialised countries as members, well, itself with a checkered background as for approval by the developing countries. Norway certainly takes the lead in granting a high percentage of its GDP in development aid, over one percent. It is a very wealthy country, partly due to its oil and gas export, and also because of fish export, tourism and abundance of fresh water and hydropower. Pakistanis envy Norwegians because power cuts and shortages are history in Norway now. But after World War II, 20 percent of households there did not have electricity. So the new comfort is not that old. By the way, Pakistani immigrants constitute the largest group from outside Europe, in the range of 40,000.
Last year, Pakistan received about $65 million, according to the OECD statistics, with about half of it for humanitarian assistance to flood victims and for IDPs. Most Norwegian aid to Pakistan is implemented by international NGOs and UN agencies that, in turn, use local NGOs. Little aid is channelled through the government, although the aid programme is considered “bilateral”, state-to-state. In addition to the bilateral programme, Pakistan also receives Norwegian aid through the multilateral UN system, with UNHCR, UNDP and UNICEF being the largest partners.
Norwegian aid is usually untied, not requiring purchasing of Norwegian goods and services, leaving the option to the recipient country to use local suppliers, when cheapest and best, or purchase from other countries. Many other donors tie their aid to deliveries from the donor country. Although partly separate, there is very little trade between Norway and the main aid partner countries. Norway imports very little from Pakistan, for example. There is, indeed, scope for improving trade and it should be part of a donor country’s aid policy.
Why was Norway ranked as the best donor by the OECD? Was it deserved? Yes, it was deserved, based on the criteria used, where Norway was competing with a score other donor countries that are OECD members. I have mentioned the important fields where Norway works. But let me also mention that the Norwegian aid is mostly project and programme aid. Very little is ‘budget support’, which would be a support to the recipient country’s government budget. Last year, the Norwegian Ambassador to Tanzania had recommended a large portion of the aid to that country (over the years, the largest recipient of Norwegian aid). But the headquarters in Oslo got cold feet and cut the budget support, but still a sizeable amount was allocated to the government coffers. There is little possibility to follow where the budget support money would end up, and if some of it would end in the pockets of corrupt politicians, civil servants, and NGO leaders.
I agree with the Norwegian Ambassador in Tanzania, whom I worked with in the same country almost 20 years ago. We should let as much development aid as possible go through the government’s institutions, and all projects and programmes, and the budget support, should be discussed by the country’s Parliament. It is only through such a system that the country’s own institutions can control the development aid and, indeed, be responsible for implementation. Their own institutions would be responsible for aid money as well as own government funds not ending in corrupt people’s pockets through the government’s own monitoring, accounting, and auditing systems, as well as separate reviews and evaluations. To continue with parallel donor systems in undemocratic and hindering the government in improving own systems.
In the early 1990s, when I worked in Tanzania, I discovered that only about half of the Norwegian development was audited. I can talk about this now since it is long ago; that time, we could not talk about it because Norwegian taxpayers, whose money it is that government aid agencies spend, would have been up in arms over lack of control and undemocratic decision-making processes. I don’t think more aid money went astray because of the shortcomings, but I do think that the mechanisms were undemocratic. A country’s government and its key institutions should always be in-charge when bilateral and multilateral aid is received.
And then a few words about implementation of aid activities. Since the Norwegians received OECD’s top ranking, they must also be good in implementation, but are they really? Again, back to my own experience from Tanzania when we used to say, that time, too, that Norad was the world’s best aid agency. We believed it, and there was some truth to it. However, there has been a decline since “my time”, in spite of which the OECD ranks Norway at the top today. I believe that the capacity to monitor implementation by the “country offices”, i.e. the Norwegian Embassies, was better before because it was Norad that was responsible for the work through “aid diplomats” and technical assistance (experts). Today, it is “general diplomats”, who administer the aid projects in a large and diverse portfolio. Well, there are short-term consultants coming on visits, to review activities and give advice, and there are some institutional linkages with Norwegian institutions. When the latter happens, I believe there can be good quality - today as in “my time”. (In Norad’s own newsmagazine, Bistandsaktuelt, No. 2/2012, these issues are discussed in two articles.)
I hope that in future, more aid will go through the government, not through other agencies. The government must then transfer the aid funds to its provincial, district, and village level administrations, with control exercised by own systems. A major share of aid goes to the social sectors, and since there is often very little money in the local social service departments, idle civil servants would be utilised better. It is not true that all civil servants are corrupt and evil, as one would think when listening to many aid workers’ reception gossip. But, it is a fact, too, that everyone handling money must be controlled, that goes for civil servants for recipient and the donor countries. In future, more money will come from tax collection and less from aid, hence, another important reason for developing good indigenous control systems.
No, I do not think there is much hanky-panky with money on the donor side. But I often see heavy-handedness and lack of transparency. Policies and plans, areas of activities and even design of projects, are made on the donors’ terms. To penetrate Norad, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and even Embassies abroad is a very difficult task. Excellent ideas from the recipient country will often not be considered seriously. That was the case in “my time” and that is also the case today. As a matter of fact, the atmosphere is more closed today, it has become less easy to receive information and enter into dialogue, in spite of better technology. Recommendations in evaluation reports are also not implemented, says a large article in the mentioned Norad magazine. Part of the reason for this is that there is less idealism and, perhaps, even less solidarity with the poor people in developing countries. Yes, “aid fatigue” is a concept. But we should also talk about “recipient fatigue”. We must never forget that the purpose of aid is to reach the needy. Aid must relieve suffering and be sustainable, leading to growth and improved systems and living conditions at local level.
The Norwegians must do this well, then, if the OECD’s ranking should be taken seriously? Well, the “gold medal” was, perhaps, more a ranking of intentions and wishes - and Norwegians do hope for the best and have good intentions. The ranking was less a measurement of results. If we wanted to rank results we would not be a ranking donor countries; then we would be a ranking the recipient countries’ development efforts, where aid would only be a component only. I hope that the ranking of the Norwegian aid efforts will not lead to complacency, because there is indeed a very long way to go before aid has the positive effect that all the money ought to lead to. I hope Norway’s “gold medal” will encourage critical internal debate of development aid and development, and since Norway is said to be best, the Norwegians can afford to be self-critical.
n The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.