‘Imagine There’s No Money’ – a thought experiment on aid without $

By Duncan Green - 10 November 2022
‘Imagine There’s No Money’ – a thought experiment on aid without $

Duncan Green looks ahead to a possible future with drastically less aid spending.

Gave a ‘Sussex Development Lecture’ last week. The title (with apologies to John Lennon): ‘Imagine there‘s no Money; It‘s easy if you try‘. Here’s the powerpoint – feel free to nick the slides.

Some points from what I learned both from writing the lecture and the Q&A:

Firstly, on aid quantity, I have been trapped in a bit of a UK/Scandinavian doom-bubble. The incredibly helpful folk at the OECD Development Co-operation Directorate provided me with the latest figures and global aid hit an all-time high of US$178.9bn in 2021, up 4.4% in real terms from 2020. See bar chart, which doesn’t include recent news on aid cuts in the UKSweden and Norway.




So why talk about international Cooperation with no/less money?

First, because a lot of this money consists of one-off spending on Covid, or on Ukraine. I didn’t have numbers on Covid, but on Ukraine, up to June 2022, US$46 billion had been committed by DAC members in humanitarian and financial assistance. That won’t all be counted against aid budgets, but some will – a recent OECD paper said: ‘this sum represents 25.7% of total ODA in 2021, re-allocating budgets to cover even a portion of this amount would have a devastating impact on other recipient countries and crises that require support.’

Second because efforts to improve the quality of aid are also struggling. The architecture, institutions and incentive systems of the aid business do not welcome disruption, meaning that the pace of real change on localization or escaping from the dead hand of linear project thinking is very slow.

Meanwhile, on the demand side, more and more countries are exiting from aid dependence (good!) and/or developing their domestic philanthropic giving – see this recent paper on ‘How India Gives’, which comes up with a figure of $3bn for how much altruistic giving takes place every year, involving 87% of the population.




So to the thought experiment: if aid flows from rich countries to poor ones falls to nothing, or very little, what could the shape of international cooperation? The good news here, I think, is that there are lots of ideas and experiences to fill the vacuum:

  • Influencing: sharing skills to influence the actions and policies of governments and other powerful players
  • Positive Deviance: haven’t banged on about this for a while, but I still think it is a wonderful alternative to white saviourist project thinking – look for the answers to a given problem that already inhere in the system, and help people learn from and spread them
  • Signposters: which government or academic community is best placed to advise others on any of the numerous shared problems that defy North/South binaries – tobacco control, obesity, inequality, alcohol, road traffic accidents?

And there is still plenty of need for action around global collective action problems from the climate emergency to tax evasion to migration.

The Q&A threw up some excellent questions and challenges here’s a sample:

On positive deviance, not all outliers can be scaled. When one of the researchers looked at why some communities in Yemen were doing better than others, they were all quat producers.

‘What can government aid officials in cash-constrained environments do?’ A cri de coeur which I would love to have you thoughts on. My reply was that it depends on what you think will happen next. If you anticipate a future swing of the pendulum back towards increasing aid, then it’s worth spending time getting the institutions, rules, policies etc right while no-one is looking, so that the aid is used well, when it arrives. If you think this is a permanent decline, then see the list above and on the powerpoint.

Are there too many development studies students? Not necessarily. If we are teaching them transferable skills, such as political analysis or even project management, they can apply them in numerous spheres, and have, according to some research I blogged about some time ago.

And finally, the whole of my rewritten lyric, in conscious emulation of the terrible doggerel that the wonderful Robert Chambers tends to drop into his books:

Imagine there’s no money

It’s easy if you try

No bogus stats or logframes

(or else your programme dies).

Imagine local actors

Deciding for themselves……

You may say I’m a dreamer

But I am not the only one

I hope one day you’ll join us

And the world will be as one

Here’s the youtube video of the lecture – apologies for the sound quality (gets better)




This first appeared on From Poverty to Power.

Image: Loco Steve via Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Disqus comments