Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Accountability in International Development Aid

Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Accountability in International Development Aid

Article excerpt

Contemporary movements for the reform of global institutions advocate greater transparency, greater democracy, and greater accountability. Of these three, accountability is the master value. Transparency is valuable as means to accountability: more transparent institutions reveal whether officials have performed their duties. Democracy is valuable as a mechanism of accountability: elections enable the people peacefully to remove officials who have not done what it is their responsibility to do. "Accountability," it has been said, "is the central issue of our time." (1)

The focus of this paper is accountability in international development aid: that range of efforts sponsored by the world's rich aimed at permanently bettering the conditions of the world's poor. (2) We begin by surveying some of the difficulties in international development work that have raised concerns that development agencies are not accountable enough for producing positive results in alleviating poverty. We then examine the concept of accountability, and survey the general state of accountability in development agencies. A high-altitude map of the main proposals for greater accountability in international development follows, and the paper concludes by exploring one specific proposal for increasing accountability in development aid.


International development projects aim to improve the well-being of the poor in the medium to long term. According to the World Bank, there are currently more than 80,000 development projects under way. (3) Typical projects include constructing dams to improve irrigation in Laos, teaching basic reading skills to pastoralists in Kenya, staffing remote healthcare clinics in Bangladesh, organizing a farmer's cooperative in Nepal, and running a micro-lending program to help poor women start their own businesses in Mali.

All of these development projects attempt to transform resources drawn from rich individuals into permanent benefits for those living in poverty. Deploying these resources so that they make a positive contribution to the lives of the poor is always challenging, with the challenges coming along three dimensions. First, any given development project will be technically quite complex. Second, project resources will tend to be diverted away from the intended beneficiaries. Third, the aggregate flow of aid resources into a country can itself generate negative effects. Following is a catalogue of the main factors along these three dimensions that can make poverty alleviation difficult.

First, any development project will face technical challenges in design and management. (4) Most development planners face the dilemma that projects must be sensitive to local skills and customs to ensure participation and so success; yet the success of a project also turns on effecting significant changes in the productive, or political, or reproductive practices of those who are meant to participate. Asia and Africa are speckled with decaying infrastructure projects from earlier eras of development aid whose operation did not fit with the skills and customs of the target populations. Projects intended to resettle communities, or to empower marginalized groups, or to democratize local politics typically disrupt settled practices in ways that some naturally resist. When a project's success will depend on a change in gender or sexual relations--such as in female literacy or AIDS-prevention projects--these kinds of difficulties are intensified. Moreover, the environment in which a project is being executed is likely to change during the period when the project is implemented. Project managers will expect to confront economic or environmental shocks, or new directives from local government, or new players who enter trying to capture project resources, or new attitudes toward the project and its staff among the project's intended beneficiaries. (5)

Second, project resources will typically be diverted away from the project's target population. …

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