1 October 2018
International development as a sector has been undergoing increased scrutiny: from financial audits to more gender-sensitive approaches, governments and international organisations have invested heavily in improving their ethical standards, transparency procedures, duty of care and due diligence.
Despite these positive developments, one aspect in official development assistance is still lagging behind: donor coordination. Coordination is lacking on both sides of the equation. On the one hand, it is missing from the internal structures of donors as individual departments and committee do not communicate with each other, whilst on the other, it is absent from the host countries, where the multiplication of projects often leads to the duplication of efforts and resultantly crowded spaces. I want to focus on the latter aspect.
Most donors agree in principle that greater donor coordination and consolidation of foreign assistance is desirable: from the OECD-sponsored High Level Forum on Harmonization in 2003, Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness in 2005 and the Accra Agenda for Action in 2008, there is more attention paid to coordination. Yet streamlined approaches to their efforts, particularly in the health and education sectors, are still gravely lacking. On the ground, this translates to overlapping efforts, duplication of work and lack of communication between funders. Some reasons for the deficiency of coordination are worth highlighting.
The first issue is that ‘the international community’ is not a monobloc with a shared vision. The term ‘international community’ is generally rather unhelpfully used to denote nearly 100 entities including governments, multinational organisations such as the EU or UN, IGOs and philanthropic organisations, but also – and increasingly – business actors. The assumption that they share the same vision for the region or country of interest is misguided. And even if they do – as, for example, may be the case in the Western Balkans (i.e. regarding EU accession) – they may not necessarily agree on how to achieve that shared vision.
National strategies for foreign policy may differ significantly on complex issues such as cross-border migration, and coordination of efforts may simply not be possible for political reasons. Even if national strategies aligned, the issue remains that coordination costs money that would otherwise be invested elsewhere. The time-consuming task of donor coordination, especially in countries for which development assistance is not a major part of the national budget, is a hard sell to domestic electorates. Organising regular donor coordination meetings necessitates not only operational management but also significant financial and time resources. Such resources are often required by (and therefore built into) budgets for project delivery rather than coordination.
Yet, it is important to start looking at duplication not only from the perspective of securing value for money but also through the prism of ethics. Duplication is ultimately not only wasting scarce resources in the long run, but also potentially causing harm by driving resources away from other (and potentially equally urgent) areas.
Understanding coordination within the context of shared interests is also useful. Areas where coordination does seem to work, such as security reforms, serve as a good example that perceptions of common interest will also drive coordination. This needs to be replicated in other less obvious areas such as social policy or gender reforms.
Moreover, the idea that host countries should take ownership over coordination rarely translates into reality. Competition within local organisations and host countries at times undermine efforts for coordination. As development assistance fluctuates across sectors and countries, host countries and partners compete for scarce resources, often responding to whatever priorities an external funder offers, rather than directing or coordinating them. Donors relying on host governments for guidance may often struggle to serve both their home audiences and those of the host countries.
This is why project funders should focus on better outreach strategies to signpost where they are working. For example, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has decided to implement a donor coordination mechanism around forensic capacities in Lebanon on a quarterly basis. This has resulted in less donor overlap and more streamlined efforts to improve counter-extremism and forensic capacity building in the country. This is a case in point demonstrating not only that coordination is possible but also that it is beneficial to others.
While donor coordination is not easily achievable, a key stepping stone toward its success is to start to approach it as a key aspect contributing to greater transparency and accountability in international development, and one that donors must invest in. No funder has so far been widely scrutinised for duplicating efforts in the way they have been for failing on their duty of care; however, coordination should become an integral part not only of our assessment of value for money but also of adherence to ethical considerations and standards of conflict sensitivity.
 This is also one of the shortcomings that the EU-CIVCAP project underlined, i.e. that the EU’s peacebuilding efforts must include a much more thorough and consistent approach to coordinating its various initiates.
 Iñaki Aldasoro, Peter Nunnenkamp, and Rainer Thiele, ‘Less Aid Proliferation and More Donor Coordination? The Wide Gap between Words and Deeds’, Journal of International Development 22, no. 7 (2010): 920–940; Peter Nunnenkamp, Hannes Öhler, and Rainer Thiele, ‘Donor Coordination and Specialization: Did the Paris Declaration Make a Difference?’, Review of World Economics 149, no. 3 (2013): 537–563.
 Stefan Leiderer, ‘Donor Coordination for Effective Government Policies?’, Journal of International Development 27, no. 8 (2015): 1422–1445.
 OECD Publishing, ‘Multilateral Aid 2015. Better Partnerships for a Post-2015 World’ (Paris: OECD, 2015), https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/development/multilateral-aid-2015_9789264235212-en.
 ‘Active: Fact-Finding in Lebanon – The Hague Institute for Global Justice’, accessed 30 October 2018, http://www.thehagueinstituteforglobaljustice.org/projects/fact-finding-in-lebanon/.
Title photo caption: Michael Georg Link, on the left, and Johannes Hahn signing an agreement launching a new project to support democratic elections in the Western Balkans.
Title photo credit: EC Photo/Georges Boulougouris
About the Author
Jessie Hronešová currently manages the project portfolio for the Western Balkans for the London-based international development consultancy Aktis Strategy, with a special focus on radicalization, independent media and strategic communications.