The agreement is in hand but where’s the sense of urgency?


As I sit in the closing plenary at Busan, I sense more relief than celebration. An agreement has been brokered. The promise of progress persists. But the level of ambition remains modest.

I think back to the first morning. Karin Slowing, Guatemala’s minister of planning was refreshingly blunt. “We don’t need to invent new indicators,” she said. “What we need is for the donors to comply with the ones we’ve got. Donors need to shape up and get their act together.”

Three days later, the donors have dodged that bullet – or at least postponed ‘til June the day of reckoning. That’s when we’ll learn how robust their commitment is to improving the quality and impact of development cooperation.

The lack of progress to date has been embarrassing. An independent evaluation revealed that donors got a passing grade on only one of thirteen subjects – and on that, they barely scraped by. If it were a child, you’d find a tutor for remedial work. For donors, Busan may have felt like a three-day detention, filled with scolding, cajoling and enticements to improve performance.

Not that partner governments – those that receive aid – were let off the hook. They fared rather better in the evaluation, demonstrating much greater progress in meeting their commitments. But just as they have pressed donors to respect their rights as nations, they too have been pressed to respect the rights of citizens to play an active role in shaping their country’s future and holding governments to account.

Women’s organizations, unions, NGOs and agencies like Oxfam pressed for stronger commitments that the people most affected – women and girls, the poor, the marginalized, the indigenous, the disabled, those disrupted by conflict and climate – would be involved as full actors in development, from the outset, with their free, prior and informed consent. Taking our cue from the private sector, we pressed for an enabling environment that respected and fostered active citizens.

In the end there was a begrudging nod to the fact that in many countries the room to organize, to criticize, to dissent is shrinking. But much more is needed to protect those bold enough to remind their rulers that development is essentially about human rights and sharing power.

Speaking of the private sector, they were the big winners at Busan. They kept a very low profile but figure prominently in the final agreement. Human rights, for example, are mentioned once in the accord; public-private partnerships, three times.

Vigilence is needed to ensure this enthusiasm for corporate partners doesn’t herald a new round of tied aid where dollars destined to end poverty make elites, North and South, ever more wealthy.

In the end, my sense is that Busan moves us forward; provides a toehold to help us scrabble up to the next ridge.

But there’s no cause for back-slapping or self-congratulations. Not when half the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. Not when a billion people will go to bed hungry tonight. Not when aid budgets in many countries are being slashed. They needed more. They deserved more. They have the right to expect more.

Robert Fox is the Executive Director of Oxfam Canada and a delegate to the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, Korea.