This is a time of seismic global shifts. I am as anxious as any parent about her child’s future. I’m worried about the sudden shakiness of the systems that we trust to resolve disputes peaceably and to uphold universal human rights.
But I fiercely believe that nothing good is ever beyond us if we work together as citizens. I think we’re now at a point on the road where we must actively try to shape events in order to fortify our relationships together, not rip them apart.
Inequality, climate change and conflict are evicting millions from their homes. But these perils are being met with “anti-answers” such as nationalism, closed borders, lies and hatred. Within this toxic discourse we hear calls to cut spending towards the world’s most vulnerable people.
Development cooperation between nations is very important because it is one of the building blocks of shared peace, prosperity and human rights for all. It is one of the antidotes to the poison of xenophobia.
Over the past 20 years, the world has seen a dramatic reduction in poverty, primarily driven by Chinese growth, but thanks also to collective efforts like the UN's Millennium Development Goals. However, recent rhetoric and events threaten to halt this progress.
Instead of boosting financial assistance to developing countries – at the time of the worst global refugee crisis since the Second World War, burgeoning levels of inequality and the hottest year on record – we’re seeing foreign aid stagnate as a whole, and serious cuts in a number of traditional donors.
Aid is being diluted both in quantity and quality. Donors are increasingly using their funding to promote their own private sectors and, even worse, block people escaping war and injustice from reaching their shores. This flies in the face of what aid should be: a tool to lift people sustainably out of poverty and strengthen countries’ ability to lead their own development.
But the reality is, they’re failing.
Diverted, degraded: the dark side of aid
The latest report by the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC) shows that only 51% of aid is being channelled into a recipient country’s own state systems. This means that donors are still heavily bypassing the very institutions that they promised “by default” to strengthen.
In addition, progress in untying aid has stalled since 2009. Donors are still formally providing around 20% of their aid with strings attached, and many donors are now making troubling signals that this trend could deepen.
Donors have made some progress. They’ve improved their reporting to bodies like the International Aid Transparency Initiative. In making information publicly available and doing so in a more timely and comprehensive manner, donors will increase the legitimacy of development cooperation.
However, they still need to do more to help countries to effectively use this new information and improve the predictability of their budgets. It is very difficult for a country to strengthen its development programmes if it's not sure how many resources they’re getting or when they’ll get it.
Societies are stronger together
That a country has a strong civil society is, I believe, particularly necessary for good development. My own life values were shaped in great part by my mother, who instigated women’s clubs in my village. Women were able to organize and stand together. What inspired me most about their work was the power it gave them to assert their rights, and the rights of their daughters, be it education or property inheritance.
The likes of local non-governmental organizations, rights groups, women’s movements and unions are important both in helping local people organize for their own community and in holding governments and donors to account for their promises.
However, since 2012, 75 countries have passed as many as 156 laws and regulations to specifically constrain these freedoms, for instance to associate or assemble. This throttling of civic space is diminishing the social contract between citizens and states.
Unless we actively change course in these areas, we risk leaving millions of families behind as economic security becomes harder to reach and democracy and rights deteriorate.
This week, leaders from all over the world will gather in Nairobi to discuss the future of development cooperation at the second High-Level Meeting of the GPEDC. It’s a big chance to reject the degradation of aid. What is decided there could affect the lives of millions of people, for better or worse.
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The meeting will chart a course for how the world can uphold the rights of countries to have a say in their own development and defend themselves against the backlash of laws that would limit their freedoms – especially those of women and girls.
It will colour how development cooperation can help fight against tax evasion and ensure that private sector investments meet the needs of the poor.
There’s a lot at stake.
Oxfam and our allies will be working hard at the meeting to make sure we get back on the right track to ensure all people – and especially the poorest – have a shot at prosperity. The need to stand up for justice and to protect the vulnerable has never been more important than now.