Ownership and sovereignty
Expert jargon sometimes coins bizarre expressions. Attempts at political correctness may even confuse the lay person which does not help to convince voters. Take the term partner, for example, as it is used in the debate on donor harmonisation. Far from denoting all parties involved, it refers only to developing countries. Rich nations such as Germany, Britain and Japan are spoken of as donors as if they did not have to cooperate in a spirit of partnership to make development succeed. To the general public, the distinction partner/donor does not make immediate sense. After all, Germans normally consider their EU neighbours their closest partners.
Some terms may seem professionally adequate, but actually reveal mind sets that are not all that politically correct. It hardly makes sense to boast of the fruits of German development cooperation nor, for that matter, of any other single nations cooperation. It takes at least two to cooperate and success cannot be credited to just one. No country can receive DC. If these letters are really meant to stand for development cooperation, the target country must assume an active stance. Yes, there are several good reasons to avoid the paternalistic term aid. However, development cooperation is certainly not a valid synonym. Such a euphemistic use of the term will only lead to the same unwanted connotations. Unlike help, cooperation logically calls for at least two subjects or more, which is what harmonisation is all about.
Anyone serious about ownership cannot substitute development cooperation for policy. Policy needs to be made nationally spelling out goals, drafting strategies, embarking on cooperation. Of course, such policy succeeds in various instances, and governments are right to highlight achievements. They need not even act altruistically, but should bear shared interests in mind.
Sometimes agencies from advanced nations, however, try to make believe that their cooperation in particular is knocking poor countries governance into shape. Well, perhaps they are contributing to such a process. But improving governance really is a domestic affair of the societies concerned. Any agency cooperating mainly with government authorities would be well-advised to not raise such expectations too high. Its counterparts in cabinets and civil services are unlikely to have an immediate interest in improving governance. They may wish to become more successful or efficient. But better governance depends on those in office becoming accountable to outside actors in parliaments, civil society and the media. That is not what powerful people normally like. Silvio Berlusconi, George Bush and others have shown a propensity to govern even advanced nations without too much respect for time-tested democratic conventions.
On the other hand, professional jargon should not shy from spelling out what really matters. Whenever ownership and harmonisation are on the agenda, we are dealing with a tacit understanding: in the age of globalisation, sovereignty needs to be waived in degrees. No government can solve cross-border problems on its own. The term cooperation makes perfect sense in this context. Even the most well-meaning donor could not single-handedly make other parts of the world affluent. Global power relations matter. On the other hand, many poor countries genuinely need and deserve help. As long as they are unable to handle crucial domestic issues on their own, however, their claim to sovereignty is challenged, to say the least. For good reason, an advanced form of development cooperation is internationally known as budget support. This term is politically and semantically correct.
Dr. Hans Dembowski
Editor in Chief of D+C Development and Cooperation/E+Z Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit