July 19, 2010

Something’s stirring out there, as the perennial grumbles about official development assistance (ODA) morph into claims of its demise. Last year, Jean-Michel Severino and Olivier Ray ventured a coup de grace in a CGD working paper, The End of ODA: Death and Rebirth of a Global Public Policy. Their proposals for resuscitation have just appeared in a second CGD working paper, The End of ODA (II): The Birth of Hypercollective Action. These are experienced, sophisticated players, and both their diagnoses and prescriptions warrant close reading. In essence, they argue that a renaissance of global collective action will require new systems for coordinating the proliferation of actors and interests. They particularly favor “knowledge, information and evaluation initiatives …; innovative sticks and carrots for governments and all civil society players to improve convergence; and new generations of coalitions and clubs.”If I read them correctly, Severino and Ray seek to reassure us that the elephants of ODA can indeed learn to tap dance, under the tutelage of wise heads who can re-orchestrate the system without jettisoning its bilateral and multilateral structure. Others are not so sure -- I count myself in that company, along with Dennis Whittle of GlobalGiving. In two recent blogs, Dennis suggests that the elephants should simply cede to the natural dancers: the myriad new players who coalesce on the web without any orchestration by wise heads. I write a similar prescription in my recent CGD essay, Tailored Aid for a Tailored Age, which argues that the current ODA system is destined to collapse anyway, because its political foundations are crumbling in the digital age.All this said, ODA obviously isn’t DOA yet. Our hard-working colleagues in the bilaterals and multilaterals are launching internal reforms that seek to re-tailor their aid programs to the needs of the new age. We can only wish them well, while working to forge an alternative vision just in case.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.