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The importance of poverty eradication characterises African and global development priorities, and seems to lie at the foundation of Official Development Assistance. Africa, the region with the greatest number of the world’s poor, should be the logical focus of development cooperation partnerships. Yet only 20% of reported ODA is spent in Africa, and there’s evidence that it’s getting less.

Most providers and recipients of development assistance would agree that poverty eradication lies at the heart of development cooperation. They would probably also acknowledge that the emphasis on eradicating poverty is by no means new.

Even a cursory view of African development positions affirms its sustained importance. It was embedded in the charter of the Organisation of African Unity (1963), as well as in the Constitutive Act of the African Union (1999). The establishment of the New Program for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) in 2001 further expressed African political commitment to accelerate the development of Africa. More recently Agenda 2063, the African Union’s long-term development vision for the region, can be seen as being built on the imperative of radically improving the quality of life of all Africans. Aspiration 1 foregrounds sustainable and inclusive growth towards a ‘prosperous Africa’.

The United Nations’ (UN) 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) similarly put the eradication of poverty at the heart of its vision. Its Preamble identifies the eradication of poverty ‘in all its forms and dimensions’ as ‘the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development’. Goal 1, unsurprisingly, foregrounds ending poverty. In this sense it also echoes the first of the Millennium Development Goals (MGDs). Many will still remember the ambitious first MDG: eradicate extreme hunger and poverty.

Despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, Official Development Assistance (ODA) can also be seen as aimed, first and foremost, at eradicating poverty. This is reflected in the official definition of ODA, first formulated in 1961 and updated in 1972. According to this definition, ODA should be flows that ‘promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries as its main objective’. The developmental heartbeat of ODA was bolstered by the United Nations resolution of 1970 that 0.7% of donor countries’ GDP (later changed to GNI) should be used as ODA. Most members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) generally accepted the target. More recently, in 2005, fifteen members of the European Union agreed to reach this target by 2015, even though most of them have failed to reach this target.

If global development is about the eradication of poverty, then Africa should be the focal point of such efforts. According to the most recent World Bank data about 45% of the world’s poor live in Africa. This means that Africa is the region with the largest proportion of the world’s poor. Of Africa’s 54 countries, 34 are classified as least developed countries. And even within those classified as middle-income countries many people continue to live in conditions of extreme poverty.

Quite simply, in terms of the logic of global, regional and subregional development priorities, this seems to mean that Africa should be a key focus of development partnerships – at least if development cooperation is primarily aimed at the eradication of poverty. More specifically it would seem plausible to expect that a proportion of ODA comparable with Africa’s proportion of the global poor should flow to the continent.

This conclusion is based, admittedly, on a rather generalised, maybe even abstract argument. Some might counter such a conclusion with the political economy of ODA, or socio-economic and political particularities of specific providers and recipients of ODA. But does this invalidate the conclusion of this rather simple argument? In my view: no. The spirit and the letter of the definitions and goals of both ODA and regional and global development priorities seem to make the contention that the flows of ODA should follow the distribution of global poverty at the very least plausible. I should also add that the assumption is by no means that ODA should be the only, or even premier, vehicle used to eradicate poverty. Such a view would contradict pronouncements by African leaders on the continent’s development financing priorities. In fact, in preparation for the First High-Level meeting of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC), held in Mexico in April 2014, the African constituency emphasised the importance of using ODA to strengthen national efforts at improving domestic resource mobilisation (DRM). The view that ODA should be used as an instrument that further enables Africa to solve its own developmental challenges is by far the dominant view.

It is disconcerting to note that ODA flows to Africa do not seem to match the continent’s need for ODA. According to data collected by the OECD, and made available on its Query Wizard for International Development Statistics (QWIDS) only about 20% of net ODA flows to Africa. It is estimated that net ODA from member countries of the DAC totalled $137 billion in 2014. About $29,2 billion of net ODA from DAC member countries flowed to Africa. The United States, European Union, United Kingdom, Germany and France remain the largest contributors, with the European Union allocating 42% of its ODA to Africa. The United States (28%), United Kingdom (23%), Germany (18%) and France (27,5%) spend more than the DAC average in Africa, but presumably significantly less than would be needed to eradicate poverty.

Not only is ODA to Africa less than is required, evidence suggests that ODA to Africa is set to remain at current levels, or decline. In 2011 just over 24% of net global ODA from DAC members was allocated to Africa. According to data on QWIDS this declined to 21% in 2014, a decline from $32 billion in 2011 to $29 billion in 2014, despite a growing global volume of net ODA.

Despite deepened consensus on the importance of reaching the target of 0.7% of GNI, few DAC member countries have managed to reach this target. Only seven DAC members have reached the target since its establishment. According to a 2014 report by the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs only Denmark, Luxemburg, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom continue to reach this target. In fact, the average of DAC members’ ODA has never exceeded 0.4% of GNI. Even the public and ambitious commitments made by fifteen members of the EU in 2005 remain largely unfulfilled.

The probability of a further decline of ODA to Africa is increased by the trend of spending ODA on so-called in-donor refugee costs. Providers of development assistance are allowed to spend ODA on refugees in their own countries, in most cases during the refugees’ first year in the respective country. Standardisation on when this ‘first year’ starts, as well as on reporting is yet to take place. Of interest to African recipients of ODA is the steep rise in in-donor refugee costs, from 4.8% of ODA in 2014 to 9.1% in 2015. This trend, if not reversed, will surely continue to fuel a decline in ODA to and in Africa.

According to many observers, including Helen Clark, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, the DAC’s attempt at amending the definition of ODA will put further downward pressure on ODA. The new definition categorises certain classes of peace and security spending as ODA, and includes certain forms of fighting violent extremism as developmental activities. Some even warn of the ‘securitisation’ of aid. It is also unclear how the relatively vague safeguards proposed by the DAC will counter the danger of redirecting ODA for non-developmental purposes.

What is to be done? I conclude with three proposals:

  1. The moral foundations of ODA should be recovered. ODA was not meant, in the first instance, to serve narrow national political goals of the providers of development assistance. There is no reason why this cannot continue to be the case. Three dimensions of ODA might be useful in this regard. ODA, firstly, can fruitfully be viewed as a moral recognition of the global interconnectedness of local developmental challenges. These flows, however, need not be viewed simply as responses to the crises of the present. To many in Africa, ODA, secondly, can be conceived of as a reaction to past injustices perpetrated in many recipient countries. It remains important to link the systemic effects of these injustices with the challenges faced in many of these countries. Also a third moral function can be identified: ODA as an acknowledgment of the shared humanity of both recipients and providers of ODA. In southern Africa many use the concept Ubuntu to express this logic. In essence it means that the deepest motivation for helping another is a shared humanity – not national or cultural politics.
  2. Existing commitments should be enacted. Many would agree that current commitments can go a long way in using ODA to eradicate poverty. The challenge lies with enacting existing commitments. Amongst these, the commitment to devote 0.7% of GNI to ODA is important, as are commitments made under the auspices of other multilateral development forums. An important example here is commitments made within the ambit of the GPEDC. Many providers of ODA are yet to use country results frameworks, or fully enact specific commitments related to accountability and transparency.
  3. Existing good practices should be documented, contextualised and up-scaled. There is a need for criticism, but also for the acknowledgement of existing good practices. The failure of some providers of ODA to adhere to commitments, or to direct their ODA to places where the need is the greatest, is not representative of the behaviour of all providers of ODA. Examples of providers that build moral development partnerships, providers that have reached the goal of 0.7 of GNI, and providers that adhere to their commitments can also be found. These should be highlighted, contextualised up-scaled across the spectrum of providers of ODA.

* Dr Willem Fourie teaches ethics at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and manages an interdisciplinary programme on leadership and development in Africa.



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