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Having worked in development for over 25 years it is fair to say I have seen the good, the bad as well as the ugly of the development juggernaut. Like many I suspect, I’ve had my moments of doubt and concern over the years but a recent experience left even me speechless.

And it all started so well! I was invited to a donor-initiated workshop aimed at learning lessons from a range of ongoing projects and exploiting the experience of a group of experts (as well as myself) in order to shape, prioritise and target complementary donor investments. Of course it’s widely acknowledged that workshops are the black holes of the development galaxy, but I’m nothing if not optimistic and this one offered a bona fide opportunity to build on some good analysis, evidence and experience; generate much needed consensus on development priorities; and to seek opportunities for synergy and complementarity between initiatives, with government and amongst donors.

Why then the concern, you might ask? Surely this speaks of ‘joined-up’ development planning at its very best? Well, perhaps. Until you factor in the timeline. Toward the end of the workshop the obvious yet arguably somewhat naive question as to “what’s the next step?” prompted the jaw-dropping response “Funds have to be committed in this financial year. We have 3 weeks in which to get a detailed programme approved. Could those present provide proposals by tomorrow for how they’d spend the funds, on what, supported by poverty impact projections?” (in case you ask, we’re talking upwards of USD 7 million here … small by today’s standards perhaps, but not insignificant amidst a global economic crisis you’d have thought).

So much for decades of hard-won experience of the finer points of ‘good’ development practice – such small things as rigorous analysis, cogent planning and risk assessment, or plausible impact projection. No longer a prerequisite it seems. Indeed the likes of myself and the world’s 3 billion poor evidently need to wise up to the fact that donors have budget cycles that trump all else. And quite a few of them have fixed spending targets (not in any way arbitrary of course) of 0.7% Gross National Income (GNI) – and woe betide those who don’t spend their quota on time.

Sadly, this is by no means a unique or donor-specific dilemma. Take my own national donor, for example. DFID found itself in a particularly tight spot back in 2013 according to an article last month in the Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/11350310/How-do-you-spend-3.7bn-in-just-8-weeks.html). The UK Government’s promise to meet its 0.7% GNI target that year left DFID with some 8 weeks to spend an estimated GBP 3.7 billion. That it succeeded in this endeavour is either an achievement of truly gargantuan proportions by an otherwise under-resourced and under-valued government department or, alternatively, the result of questionable expediency.

Sitting, subdued at the aforementioned workshop, I was reminded of another Springfield Soap Box (If we want better development, cut the UK aid budget”) penned in 2014 by my esteemed colleague, Alan Gibson, in which he challenges the wisdom of that 0.7% GNI target and, risking accusations of ‘development treason’, nevertheless recommends budget cuts. As is oft the case, there is much value in what Alan has to say, but my workshop experience left me wondering if even Alan – with all due respect, not someone known for holding back – had under-estimated the implications for the quality and validity of development decision-making.

The other image that came to mind with somewhat disconcerting clarity, was that of the recurrent struggle my wife and I have had over the years with our children’s apparent imperative to spend pocket money instantly in case – awful parents that we are – we might change our minds and take it back. “You don’t have to spend it all on the first thing you see” will not be a wholly unfamiliar sentiment to the parents amongst you I suspect. Apparently though, it may be a piece of advice not unwarranted in certain donor circles these days.

In any case, after not too many years my children seemed to have grasped the concept. They are pretty adept at assessing their friends’ opinions and experience, weighing up the options and considering for how long they’re likely to enjoy the benefits … shame I didn’t take one of them along to that workshop!

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