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DEVELOPMENT: When It Comes to Aid, All Power to the People

Darío Montero

GENEVA, Jun 29 2007 (IPS) - Aid to the developing world is effective when it empowers the community and the government of the recipient country, and they have learned to design a strong development strategy. Otherwise the effort is in vain, and hunger and exclusion only become more deeply rooted, say activists at a development forum under way here.

That is the key to making the most of resources from donor countries in regions like Latin America, where aid should have a positive influence on the fulfilment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the head of food security for Intervida World Alliance (INWA), Francisco Martínez Frutos of Spain, told IPS.

Hopes for reducing hunger and extreme poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean, the region with the greatest socioeconomic inequality in the world, are partially dependent on the effective use of aid funds, which have fallen off partly because more resources are being sent to Africa.

The eight MDGs were adopted by the United Nations in 2000; the first is to halve the proportion of people living in hunger and extreme poverty by 2015, from 1990 levels.

Latin America was notable chiefly for its absence among the diagnoses, assessments and examples presented by speakers at the 2007 Development Forum at the Conference of Non-Governmental Organisations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations (CONGO), meeting from Thursday to Saturday in Geneva.

This was the view taken by Latin American civil society delegates and experts consulted by IPS. The region is nevertheless a cause for concern, they said.

Knowing the effectiveness and impact of aid is important, which means measurement instruments must be maintained in place after aid projects have come to an end. This applies not only to growth, but also to the pursuit of equity, according to researcher Gonzalo de Castro.

Poverty and equity are not independent variables. The arithmetic is simple: if the rich cannot be taxed, there will be fewer financial resources available for redistribution to the poor, De Castro said, citing Chilean economist Víctor Tokman, labour adviser to the Ricardo Lagos government (2000-2006) and former regional director of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

De Castro further quoted Tokman as saying, “while some people are travelling on a high-speed train, others are being hauled along by old-style steam engines; we have a two-track society,” and the current differences are passed on from one generation to the next, he said.

Based on the accumulated experience of ongoing aid projects in Central America and the South American Andean region, Martínez Frutos warned of a sort of “social action privatisation” which is getting in the way of effectiveness.

Rich donor countries are providing funds to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for each one to do with as it thinks best. “These are private associations and they behave like companies, even though they are not-for-profit,” said the expert from the Spain-based INWA.

Instead, aid policies should be adopted by donor governments with concrete lines of action, and their own programmes should be well-defined, in consultation with their aid agency, and subsequently coordinated and implemented in partnership with the recipient countries, he said.

Aid funding will rise, as part of the powerful countries’ fight against immigration from poor countries, particularly sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, he said. “They can’t build any more fences or barriers, and one of their policies is to hand out aid in order to stop the flood of people pouring in,” Martínez Frutos said.

“That’s why we’re trying to reach agreement with the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) and other UN agencies, so that they ‘get in with’ the governments, in order to get them to design a common strategy for aid programmes,” he said.

“FAO, for example, works directly with the governments of the countries we donate to – Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala and so on – on their planning, designing and monitoring, so we could achieve a consistent line of effective aid work,” Martínez Frutos said.

In this regard South America is more fertile ground than the rest of the world, because of the regional tradition of the welfare state, in spite of the ravages caused by free-market policies in the 1990s, delegates from the region said. Those were times of low-intensity democracy.

Plans like Zero Hunger in Brazil, and those proposed by the Evo Morales administration in Bolivia, are aimed at empowering the communities receiving aid to design, develop, manage and control it. This is necessary in order to avoid strengthening the traditional elites that hold economic and political power.

If NGOs do not adopt this way of working, “their only option will be to go directly to the communities and ask them ‘What do you need?’ and straight away we can provide the resources or set up an NGO on the spot. What we can’t do is train the authorities, for example, those in charge of building the irrigation channel that a farmer needs, who must provide long-lasting infrastructure that will allow the aid to be sustainable over time, and not just temporary assistance,” Martínez Frutos said.

In this way, “we as an NGO make an investment, when it would be more effective for the money to come from Spain, to give a well-known example, directly to the government of the recipient country. Then the government, aware of the needs of its population and in the context of concrete national plans, would use that aid appropriately,” he said.

In accordance with these principles, INWA works in the field with communities to build a community organisation, or to train ministry officials or personnel belonging to specialised government offices who will continue the work in the area – “when they allow us to,” he said.

Bolivia has designed an ideal strategy, according to Martínez Frutos, because it hands over decision-making power to peasant and indigenous communities. “The problem is how this can be accomplished, and that’s where we see the flaws, because it can’t be done by force, but only by persuasion,” he said.

A link with governments is needed, and it will gradually be built. Meetings of civil society organisations add to their strength, as has been proved at the CONGO forum here, the Spanish expert and Latin American activists recognised.

“Meanwhile, we are working in the field with farmers so that in a reasonable time – five years, say – they will have set up their own small business, which will have an impact and will be sustainable,” Martínez Frutos said.

A voice is also needed in the international arena, where civil society recommendations must be heard by multilateral organisations.

“Only four UN representatives were present at the first day of this Development Forum, and then they left,” without waiting to hear the discussions and conclusions of the NGOs, complained Kumi Naidoo, a South African and the secretary general of CIVICUS – World Alliance for Citizen Participation.

“NGO forums should have access to spokespeople from governments,” said Martínez Frutos. A useful example was a meeting this month in Rome on organic agriculture and food security, “where it was possible to make concrete recommendations that were passed on to the Committee on World Food Security (of the FAO) which met the following week,” he said.

“We had direct contact and a specific topic to discuss, and it was possible to put pressure on government decision-makers,” he said.

“We were right there with the FAO director general (Jacques Diouf) the whole time, as he was moderating the session. It’s the first time that the FAO has opened its doors to civil society so that it could have a voice within the Committee on World Food Security,” he said.

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