What will success at Busan look like for conflict-affected countries?

Two thousand representatives of governments, the UN, other multilateral organisations and NGOs will shortly convene in Busan, South Korea, as the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness to discuss the effectiveness of overseas development aid.

It’s countries affected by armed conflict that face the toughest development challenges. What would success at Busan look like for them?

New thinking on development and conflict

More than 1.5 billion people live in countries affected by violent conflict. None of those countries has yet achieved a single Millennium Development Goal.

There has been a lot of reflection on this over the past few years, culminating with the World Bank's World Development Report 2011. It outlined a new approach to development assistance in conflict settings, emphasising jobs, inclusive public institutions and the confidence of ordinary citizens in their state and their future.

The purpose of aid has changed. Twenty years ago an aid programme might have built schools and trained teachers. Ten years ago it might have strengthened a government's capacity to plan, provide and oversee education. Now some donors want to foster better relations between the state and the people, increasing responsiveness, responsibility and citizenship. This requires change in some of the institutions at the heart of governance and society.

New challenges – and persistent ones

Progress has been made, then, but many problems remain. That is hardly surprising because programming aid effectively is difficult, especially in conflict countries.

For example, it's widely agreed that building responsive citizen-state relations is key to peace and prosperity but not much is known about how to do it, especially at the speed and on the scale that meets people's expectations.

Similarly, the lack of decent work for young people is widely acknowledged as a major threat to stability. The orthodoxy says the private sector should create jobs - but that won't happen at the necessary scale and speed and in poor countries may well be undependable.

Meanwhile, climate change brings new pressures on resources like land and water, the collision between growth and green priorities, the task of adaptation - together with huge new spending budgets. These are largely managed separately from other aid, raising the risk of increasing incoherence among donors and recipients.

In the background, the behaviour of governments continues to hinder development. Some donors’ foreign policy undermines their own aid goals while some recipients use aid primarily to hang onto power. And too many western donor agencies seem to ignore the change in the balance of global economic power with the rise and rise of China and India.

And then there’s the issue of knowing whether the job is being done well. We have not yet got the right metrics for assessing peacebuilding progress. It cannot be done with the metrics that suffice for health or education and it is increasingly tiresome that aid agencies seem to be pulled towards inappropriate indicators by the results agenda. Rigorous qualitative indicators and a time-frame appropriate to the task are key components.

All that said, how will we know if the Busan High Level Forum is a success, justifying the presence of 2,000 busy people? Five critical factors in the speeches and statements at Busan will offer evidence of success.

An honest conversation

First, the meeting needs to recognise the change and uncertainty in the field of development. The way policy discussions need to be framed has fundamentally changed over the decade since the MDGs were agreed. We need new tools and methods to achieve and to measure success. A successful HLF4 will define this challenge and set out a process for meeting it.

Second, the meeting needs to resist the temptation of the fake consensus. Beneath the technical language of aid, development is political and contentious. International forums about aid in the past have glossed over this and produced shallow consensus. That often leaves aid practitioners trapped by official niceties into policies they know are flawed, targets they know are unreal and actions they know are ineffective. A successful HLF4 will recognise that different interests and perspectives lead to quite different views about how development happens and how to aid it. The result will be an open debate on this issue as discussions begin about the world beyond the MDGs after 2015.

Honest collaboration

Third, the meeting must think through how to get more effective collaboration. Regardless of the difficulties of getting more than merely technical, surface agreement, international agencies, governments and civil society do need to work together. That means respecting differences of approach and being more selective about collaboration. A successful HLF4 will promote more selective but deeper collaboration among the different actors.

Moving on from Busan

Fourth, the meeting should start to get away from thinking primarily about aid because the starting point is actually development. The way aid is planned and used matters. But aid is not development – it supports development. So the need is to discuss what constitutes development, to identify the policies and behaviours of citizens, governments and private sector that are most likely to promote progress, and then figure out how to encourage them. A successful HLF4 will agree that future forums will be about promoting effective development progress, not just best practice in aid.

And fifth, there’s the inescapable question of operationalization. Getting global agreement on critical issues is hard and results in a convergence on least demanding positions and commitments. So it is worth recognising that some of the most important progress over the next few years will not be at the global level. Rather, it will be found at the level of specific countries, organisations, working relationships and programmes of activity. This implies a need to encourage individual countries and organisations to push ahead with operationalising some of the new development thinking associated with the World Development Report 2011 and the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding.

A successful HLF4 will highlight this kind of work and agree to prioritise it.

By Dan Smith and Phil Vernon