Portugal is poised for a general strike to protest the austerity measures. Athens is cleaning up. British civil servants have been told that they can’t travel first class on the railways even if they use their own money to upgrade because it would send the wrong message. Across Europe (with the perennial exception of France), we are entering an age of austerity.
So far, the British are saying that international development will be insulated from any cuts. The Scandinavians are singing roughly the same tune but the mainstream Conservative Dutch opposition (who may well be at the core of the next government after the election in two weeks) want to halve overseas development assistance (ODA) to about 0.4% of GDP. As usual, the Dutch may be the trendsetters.
The international development community, meanwhile, seems not to have noticed that the world has changed. Business class lounges still resound with earnest conversations about poverty reduction. Look at the website for next month’s Women Deliver conference and you’ll see, “the world’s women and the world entirely, need courageous leadership and vast funding commitments.” The themes of international travel and wanting more money came together in a Global Fund statement last week: “given that many important forums are scheduled to take place at national and international level which will shape the MDG agenda for 2010- 2015, Ministers of Health and the co-hosting partners agreed to join forces to advocate for increased political and financial support for the health related MDGs.” Search for the word “austerity” on the GAVI vaccine web site and there are two results: one in a 2008 plan for Laos and another in a plan for Guyana. Search for “austerity” on the site of Bono’s One Campaign and the site will ask you to “make sure all words are spelled correctly” because it can’t find anything.
Confronted with evidence that behaviour change communication (bcc) does nothing much to stop the AIDS epidemic in women in the developing world, blogger Gillian Fletcher attacked “the empiricist paradigm” and said that bcc enabled women, ” to consider other ways of being”. That’s alright then.
The prevailing view seems to be that Europeans, Australians and Americans will watch as their hospitals close and their public services shrink but the business of international development will keep booming. This would be a dangerous delusion at any time but it’s positively psychotic at a time when Dambisa Moyo is seemingly on every news channel talking about aid blighting Africa and William Easterly’s Aid Watch blog is being added to the must-read lists of more and more journalists.
If international development is to survive the double dip, it will need a narrative about help in a time of shortages. Some of it will be the silly trite stuff that every government and fundraising NGO has to say: waste will be cut, efficiencies will be found, paper will be recycled, everyone will wear secondhand underwear. Some of it, though, needs to be serious thinking about priorities and acting on evidence. Behaviour change communication doesn’t work; we’ll stop it. Corruption is undermining aid efficacy in Kenya; the aid will go somewhere else. Malawi would rather spend its time fretting about the evils of sodomy than addressing its people’s poverty; fine, let them but they can fret on their own dime.
Developing the narrative will be painful and controversial but if the international development community doesn’t do it, the money will disappear. Businesses, unions, interest groups, pensioners’ alliances and hundreds of others are working flat out to ringfence their spending through new initiatives to show that they are ready to be lean, mean and keen. Sadly, back in the business class lounge, they are just drafting another communique on how massive the extra resources need to be.