In 2005, ministers and heads of development agencies signed what became known as the Paris Declaration, calling for developing country ownership of their own development agenda and the alignment of international aid with the latter. This was an important event that translated the need for a new development partnership into basic principles designed to increase aid effectiveness and accountability on both sides: the donors and the recipient Governments. Development aid had until then had mixed results, at best. Even when its impact had been positive, it proved of short duration.
Five years after the Paris Declaration and ten after the Millenium Summit that produced the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), few feel that it has radically altered practices on the ground, and the chance of achieving even partially the MDGs seems remote. It is indeed unlikely that the MDGs can be reached without improving aid effectiveness and the latter cannot be achieved without strong and determined national leadership and ownership of development action.
National ownership requires political determination at the highest echelons of the recipient countries. However, national authorities are invariably short of resources, both human and financial. Without the means to lead in a meaningful way, ownership rapidly becomes a slogan and most decisions are made in the capital of the donor countries or the headquarters of international and regional organizations. No wonder then that development strategies are, even with the best of will, imported from abroad and do not take into account the political and socio-economic reality on the ground. It is thus not surprising that such strategies do not grow solid roots, investments do not have the desired impact, recipient countries are accused of passivity or worse corruption, and western parliaments criticize governments for wasting public funds.
In the meantime, the descent into ever increasing vulnerability continues, be it exposure to external shocks such as the food crises of 2008, or to natural disasters. This was tragically illustrated on 12 January when a massive earthquake created havoc in Haiti and killed some 300,000 persons. Or the more recent cholera outbreak. Such tragedies do not need to happen. In fact, it was the perfect demonstration of the failure of development aid. Had international aid been coherent and focused on helping the Haitian State deliver services to its population, including rule of Law, many lives would have been spared.
The situation is not a desperate one. Many lessons have been learned and they must now be put into practice.
One of them is that there must be a concerted effort to enhance the capacity of the institutions in fragile States. This does not mean overwhelming weak ministries with a flood of international experts, nor does it mean deploying experts who will only ensure that the programmes of their paymasters get implemented outside the purview of the institutions they are supposed to support. It means patience, constant dialogue and mutual understanding. In Haiti the ministries and the central and local authorities are not as powerless or weak as is often reported. Rather they have been used to being mere witnesses of assistance programmes, at times consulted but rarely involved. Such programs are not only alien to the authorities on the ground, but they are also regarded as the product of external actors, thereby reinforcing the perception of the population that the State is corrupt and does not care about their predicament. The social contract is broken, if it ever existed.
Enhancing the capacity of the national institutions therefore requires political sensitivity and a good understanding of the situation on the ground. One thing is to help the administration regain strength and develop into a more service oriented institution. Another is to give that administration the means to function effectively. Central and local authorities must have some financial resources. This minimum does not even exist in the case of Haiti. Its overall budget is equivalent to that of a medium-size university in Europe. At present, it can hardly cope with paying the salaries of its small number of civil servants, most of the time de-motivated because they feel powerless, without any means to assist and support the population they are supposed to serve. Years of powerlessness do no good for efficiency but this trend can be reversed.
To date, Haiti had to fight very hard to receive a modicum of budgetary support. While European donors were ready to consider this action, and have been delivering for several years now, the amounts involved are very limited, and other donors have been much more reluctant. The result has been that while billions of dollars reached Haiti before, during and after the earthquake, only a small percentage was actually made available to the ministries.
This has to change. The recent presidential and legislative elections of last week present an almost unique opportunity for Haiti that will then have a new government with several years to put the country on a solid track towards equitable and sustainable development. It will be a good opportunity to also introduce a more constructive relationship between the executive and legislative branches of the State. The international community should be ready to assist, with the necessary safeguards, and bring budgetary support to a new level that will allow the Haitian State to transform itself into one that delivers services, that invests in the future of its country, that sticks and has the means to stick to clearly defined priorities.
Investing in the capacity of the Haitian State by substantially increasing budgetary support and focusing on a lasting enhancement of the capacity of its institutions, is no revolutionary proposal. It is a prerequisite to transform the country. Yet it still seems to be a challenge for many development actors as it goes against current practices in development aid that favours earmarking and prefers to finance their own, often nationally-based, non-state entities.
Ultimately, the capacity and willingness to change, both for Haitian institutions and the international community, will decide whether this country will once again surprise the world and emerge from decades of bad governance and deepening poverty, to become a refounded State, proud of its past and eager to confront the challenges of the future.