Aid and the private sector: a love story

Donors have a new love: business. And it will end poverty. Aid chiefs across the world have concluded that if we need growth to end poverty and the private sector drives growth, isn’t aid most effective where it focuses on the private sector? -Oxfam Blogs

Well, no. At least not usually. And a new report from Canada sheds light on why.

The Canadian Council for International Co-operation and the think-tank the North South Institute have assessed the policies of donors towards promoting growth and the private sector. They break down (very adeptly) what the OECD donors are doing, how they’re thinking about the private sector and where they are falling short. It’s not only a sorely needed assessment of the rise and rise of private sector-focused aid, it also reminds us that aid is increasingly promoting a very specific economic model (thy name is neo-liberal capitalism) with some questionable assumptions that should attract serious scrutiny.

You can read the report here but here are some highlights, along with a few thoughts from me.

Just feed the growth machine

Donors are focused on plain old growth. They don’t have a meaningful approach to improving the distribution or pro-poor impacts and too often merely pay lip-service to issues to do with the quality of growth. They’re not linking possible interventions; such as support to government capacity to protect labour rights, effectively collect taxes and redistribute the benefits of growth; with their private sector programmes. In addressing gender, too often they simply focus on getting women into markets, ignoring the social and political drivers of gender inequality. And direct support to the poorest and most marginalised is falling out of favour.

While the donors may differ on their rhetoric (some are good at sprinkling in buzz words like “inclusive” and “sustainable” when discussing growth), their private sector work ends up looking eerily similar. French and Belgian aid goes furthest in prioritising equality and accompanying growth with social services. However, for most donors, private sector programmes are effectively stand-alone growth feeders. The report reminds us that sustained growth in many developing countries (particularly in Africa) has failed to put a dent in unemployment. Growth driven by extractives is one such example that’s cited. So just feeding the growth machine doesn’t automatically mean the poor will benefit.

Can aid really drive growth?

The report finds that donors focus on interventions at the macro (e.g. business enabling environment and international CSR support) and meso (e.g. PPPs and financing investments) levels. However, it’s the micro-level programmes (e.g. training women farmers) that “have a much larger redistributive impact for poor and marginalized populations”. But can aid money really be a (meaningful) driver of growth? Why not focus on helping the most marginalised, rather than obsess over catalysing broader economic growth?

Win-win-win-win… always

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are the new black. For OECD DAC members, PPP spending has risen from US$234m in 2007 to US$903m in 2010. Donor strategies suggest they represent wins for everyone: recipient governments, business, donors and NGOs. But donors seem to ignore the complexity of interests and agendas among those involved in PPPs. The pitfalls and inefficiencies of PPPs are scarcely mentioned and the politics of the PPP negotiating process is swept under the rug. This, I suspect, comes from an ideological underpinning to private sector strategies, which holds that business interests are aligned with development interests. Donors need to be reminded that this is only sometimes the case.

Crony capitalism?

Donors are also looking to include their national firms in their private sector strategies. For example, Australia’s Mining for Developmentprogramme (AU$127m) partners with Australia’s mining giants on a range of projects in developing countries. Denmark’s Business Partnerships programme and the UK’s Food Industry Retail Challenge Fund are only open to national firms. This all seems dangerously like a veiled attempt to subsidise the foreign investment and CSR strategies of national companies – as long as some development story can come about. And isn’t this neo-tied-aid?  In the report’s own words “Donors sometimes favour their own commercial interests to the detriment of developing countries’ domestic policies for development.” Without more transparency around decision-making and a clear results framework for private sector partnerships (the report finds this is sorely lacking), we are left to interpret decisions and priorities as cynically as we’d like (I bags the cynical view).

The report makes a plethora of sensible recommendations, including the need to support democratic ownership of the growth agenda and ensure additionality in private sector development programmes (ie; that an investment, CSR approach or any job-creation wouldn’t have happened even without the programme). But what comes flying off the page is the need to question fundamental assumptions about growth and aid. Some questions that I’m left with are:

  • What type of growth should donors be promoting?
  • Can aid really drive growth?
  • Are aid bureaucrats equipped to do business with business (e.g. through partnerships and PPPs)?
  • Why doesn’t aid focus on building the rights and power of the most marginalised?

What do you think?

By Oxfam private sector adviser Erinch Sahan