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Optimism and Ownership Key at Busan

This article first appeared as a Devex post, find the orginal article here

The transformation of South Korea from aid recipient to aid donor has been an inspiration to me since researching Korea for my Masters dissertation. In Busan last week for the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (HLF4), I saw first-hand the economic miracle which has occurred since the devastating conflict in the 1950s. I left with my usual optimism about Africa reinforced. When Korea’s President Lee was a child, his country was one of the poorest in the world. Now Korea is one of the world’s economic powerhouses. And as Tony Blair said in the Washington Post last week – and last week’s brilliant Economist article shows - there is no reason why African countries can’t transform themselves in the same way.

With more than 2000 people from 160 countries, including development wonks, government delegations, civil society activists, parliamentarians, and the private sector, the HLF4 was always going to be crowded with different viewpoints. And different people will take away different stories, depending on what they went to Busan wanting to hear. It’s clear that there were some big outcomes from the meeting - important new developments on aid policy towards fragile states, on transparency, and on the international aid architecture. But as a newcomer to aid summits, there were three stories which resonated for me.

Kate Gross, Africa Governance Initiative Chief Executive

First, I felt a welcome sense of urgency and optimism, particularly from the African delegations I met in Busan. Many African leaders – and certainly those AGI works with in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda and now Guinea – have a clear vision for the development change they want to achieve in their country. They are taking the tough and often unpopular decisions needed to make things happen. They have unprecedented support – as Bill Gates has said, if donors meet their commitments they will generate an additional $80 billion of aid every year. But as we heard from Amara Konneh, the Liberian Minister of Planning speaking at the panel AGI hosted with USAID “the binding constraint is the capacity to deliver”. In a world of scarce resources and government capability depleted by conflict and poverty, countries like Liberia need support to build their capacity to “get the damn thing done”, as Tony so eloquently put it at our event.

Second, I often say that what we at AGI want to see is country ownership becoming more than a slogan. At Busan African leaders were demanding the same thing. In his key-note address, President Kagame challenged donors to build not by-pass country systems - “there is still resistance on the part of some donor countries to channel their aid through national systems… why not use aid to build up and strengthen such critical systems?” Kagame went on to single out AGI as one of a handful of partners to Rwanda who have provided the kind of support his country needs to develop – according to him, our work balances “fast implementation of development programmes and transfer of skills”. The international community gets this too: Ban Ki Moon spoke about country ownership as one of three principles for more effective aid.

Finally, the development model is shifting – and for the better. With the presence of a new generation of African leaders, crystal clear about what they want from aid, the prominence of new donors, south-south and triangular partnerships, the flow of private capital into Africa, and the involvement of business and philanthropic foundations who push the boundaries of innovation in development, the old model of the rich north giving to the poor south has been replaced by a new global partnership. In the 1960s, as Sec. Hillary Clinton pointed out, official development assistance represented 70 percent of the capital flows going into developing countries, today it is just 13 percent. Now, accountability flows both ways, from recipient to donor and from donor to recipient. As Brian Atwood of the OECD put it, “we are no longer a world of donors and recipients, we must be a world of partners”. The emergence of this new landscape fulfils the call for change made in the 2005 Commission for Africa report.

Outside of the noise of the BEXCO building, I realised that when I researched Korea all those years ago, I overlooked something vital. Something which drives the work we do at AGI. Leadership. Without it, Korea would not be where it is today. And if Africa is to meet its potential, it too needs leadership. It needs serious, effective leaders to make the right decisions and capable governments to see them through.

Kate Gross is CEO of the Africa Governance Initiative, a UK charity which works with a new generation of African leaders to build the capacity for results. Kate was selected by DEVEX as one of the “40 under 40” development leaders in 2011.