The answer depends on what we as advocates can do with the outcome.
Earlier this month, Busan, Korea, was the site of a furious, hectic negotiation over how to make aid work better. Oxfam was there, among numerous civil society allies, fighting to make sure the interests of poor people were part of this conversation. Since my return from Busan, people have been asking, “was Busan a win for poor people?” The answer depends on what we as advocates can do with the outcome.
At stake in Busan was the Paris Declaration (pdf)—a set of rules agreed between rich and poor countries in 2005 about making aid more useful for fighting poverty. Basically, poor countries had held up their side of the bargain, to manage aid better and invest in their people. But rich countries had not followed through on their promises to let poor countries have more control over how aid is used. And so, finding it hard to follow through on the promises they made, rich countries were trying to undo them—attempting to roll back commitments to make aid more predictable, transparent, and useful to poor people and their governments.
The donors’ excuse? That the world had changed so much from 2005, that new actors were on the scene that made the Paris Declaration outdated. The emergence of new donors like Brazil, India, and China, the role of the private sector, the risk of fragile states—all were held up as examples of why Paris needed to change with the times.
And there was truth to this. In fact, civil society wanted changes to Paris, too—an acknowledgement of the role that people themselves play in their own development. Paris is often criticized for being focused on governments at the expense of people. The challenge for advocates of better aid was this: could Paris be redefined to include the big new players—people, new donors, private companies, fragile states—without weakening the original commitments? Was there a way to improve the Paris Declaration without breaking it?
Busan half-answered this question. Negotiators at Busan did in fact bring numerous new actors and contexts into the tent: emerging donors, private sector, civil society, fragile states. Most important was language that emphasized the link between fighting poverty and protecting human rights. And they managed to do this without adopting language that watered down the Paris Principles.
But the real question remains; what now? The Busan Outcome Document is full of great language, carefully arranged to meet the needs of all these different interests. And, in fact, the true strength of the Paris Declaration was never the words in the Paris Declaration; it was the fact that the governments that agreed to the Paris Declaration also agreed to publicly measure their progress on implementation. That system of accountability expired this year. At Busan, governments punted on coming up with a new system until June 2012.
So, the challenge now rests with us as advocates; will we take action to make Busan a win for poor people? Will we work during the next six months to make sure that strong indicators of progress get selected? Will we start picking up on the good words in the Busan Outcome Document (pdf) and start using them to hold governments accountable? Busan will be a win if advocates seize this moment and use the outcome document to achieve real gains for poor people.