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View the documentThe 1990 DAC Report - Focus on ecology and democracy

The 1990 DAC Report - Focus on ecology and democracy

Development policy is not immune to the great and events which are currently sweeping the world. This is one of the main conclusions to be drawn from the Annual Report of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC), published at the end of 1990. The latest Report focuses particularly on ‘green ‘ questions, underlining the extent to which the environment has now moved to the top of the global agenda. The astonishing transformation in the world’s political landscape over the past two years has also left its mark on development policy and this too is reflected in the Report. The concepts of ‘ecologyn’ and ‘democracy’ are certainly not new, but the groundswell of popular opinioognises, beginning to have profound implications for the future orientation of development policy.

The Report also contains, in annex, the usual detailed statistical information on levels of aid provided by DA C members during the year in question. While the OECD would not itself formally characterise the figures as ‘league tables’, there is no doubt that they continue to be seen by many as the best available indication of the Member States’ ‘development performance’.

The subject of the environment is examined initially by Joseph Wheeler, the outgoing Chairman of the DAC in the second chapter of his ‘overview’ (Part I of the Report). This is entitled; ‘Toward a Green Development Strategy’ and from the outset, Mr Wheeler argues ‘that an accelerated effort to reduce poverty, including a high priority for family planning, should be the first line of attack in dealing with environmental issues in developing countries’. It is clear, both from this initial statement and from the title of Part 2 of the Report (‘Environment and Population’) that the threat to the world ecology posed by current demographic trends in developing countries, is of prime concern.


The population growth issue, taken together with other environmental problems, should be seen, however, in the context of the broader aim, best summed up in the expression, ‘environmental sustainability’. This term is gradually coming to be accepted as encapsulating a new and fundamental goal of development policy. As the Report puts it: ‘Contributing to environmentally sound and sustainable development has been identified by DAC Members as a central task for development cooperation in the 1990s. Without major action, irreparable damage could be done to the resource base and natural environment in developing countries. The problems could become increasingly intractable and expensive, compromising current and future development prospects’.

Identifying the problem is, of course, the easy part. The ecological signals of famine, drought’ desertification, increased air and sea pollution etc. can no longer be ignored and the concept of environmentally sustainable development is both readily understood and irrefutable. The greater challenge is to formulate and implement appropriate policies.

From the DAC Report, it would appear that the members of the committee, working both individually and collectively, have at least begun to tackle these challenges. As regards collective action, it is reported that the DAC Members ‘are in the process of developing’ a variety of ‘common policy orientations’ designed, inter alia, to help developing countries in the field of environmental programmes-including planning and management-and to improve and harmonise environmental impact assessments. The European Community, eight of whose Members also participate in the DAC, provides a number of good examples of worthwhile collective action.

In addition, almost all DAC Members have adopted, on an individual basis, ‘an environmental policy to guide their development assistance activities’. The Report provides information in some detail, about the concrete measures taken in pursuit of this policy in its various Member countries.

The influence of ‘green’ issues on development strategies is being seen in a number of ways. On the one hand, existing patterns of development assistance are increasingly being subject to scrutiny with a view to assessing their environmental impact. At the same time, there is a growing willingness to fund projects whose principal purpose is to consolidate or improve ecological conditions, where economic benefits also accrue locally. There is a new focus on environmental education, on the collection of environmental data and on the active involvement of local populations in the preservation and enhancement of the ecosystem. Together these represent a significant reorientation in development policy, taking place over a relatively short space of time.

The DAC Report also describes ‘aid responses to global environmental problems’ which include important issues such as the protection of the ozone layer, the problem of climatic changes, the loss of tropical forests, and the thorny issues of hazardous wastes and toxic chemicals.

Population growth

The crucial problem of population growth mentioned above, is treated in a separate chapter and current projections make sobering reading. At a conservative estimate, the current world population of between 5 billion and 6 billion, will increase to 8.5 billion by 2025 and the figure could be up to 900 million higher. Most of this population growth will take place in the developing world, placing an enormous extra strain on an already limited and fragile resource base. The Report outlines policy developments which have taken place in this field and suggests new strategies and initiatives. The authors argue that the issue must be given a higher profile on the agendas of national governments and that a better coordination of programmes is needed. The idea that we are living with a ‘demographic timebomb’is beginning to gain currency although its full implications may not yet be fully appreciated. The claim in the Report that ‘population growth is currently a major obstacle to development’ has a distinct air of understatement - in a world of finite resources, it would seem reasonable to assume an inversely proportional relationship between population size and sustainable development. As the former increases, the prospect of achieving the latter must surely recede. On the other hand, to do justice to the authors of the Report, it is worth repeating the stark warning with which they conclude the chapter on population and development: ‘Action - or the lack of it - in population policy during the 1990s will decide whether the world population will eventually double or triple’.

Democracy and development

While the related questions of the environment and populatin growth form the central theme of the 1990 DAC Report, a variety of other development related issues are discussed by the Chairman in his ‘Overview’ at Part 1. It is significant in this context, that Mr Wheeler should choose to begin his own contribution with a discussion on ‘Democracy and Development’, reflecting the emphasis now being placed on this subject by donor countries. According to the Chairman, ‘the connection between accountability, rule by law, transparency in decision-making, democratic practice in general and opportunities for economic efficiency has become more and more apparent’. It is clear that the old conventions are changing. It would be foolish to suggest that in the past, donors were not swayed by political considerations in their decisions as to how to allocate finance but a fiction was often maintained, and to some extent adhered to, that there was no linkage between the internal political organisation of a country and its objectively determined development needs. The conventional wisdom now is that there is a direct relationship between pluralism and economic growth. As Mr Wheeler points out. ‘The signals being given are that allocation decisions henceforth will be more influenced than in the past by a country’s record on human rights and democratic practice’. The effects of the recent seachange in world politics are truly being felt!

Other areas discussed briefly in the ‘Chairman’s Overview’ include the problem of developing country debt, the promotion of private enterprise, science, technology, agriculture, children and the least developed countries.

Table 1: Total ODA of CAD member countries expressed as a percentage of GNP

Development assistance-the 1989 figures

Turning to look at the statistics published by the DAC in its Report, it emerges that Official Development Assistance (ODA) supplied by the 18 DAC member countries amounted to US $46.7 billion. This represents a 2 % drop compared with the previous year. Special factors, notably the payment by the United States of almost $2 billion in contributions to the IDA, helped to inflate the 1988 figure and the 1989 reduction should be seen in this context. At the same time, there are few signs of overall progress towards achieving the 0.7 % aid/GNP ratio, which is the medium or long-term goal of most DAC members. Indeed, the 1989 figure of 0.33 % compares unfavourably, not only with 1988 (0.36%) but also with the average ratios for the last 15 years (see Table 1).

On the other hand, the relatively static proportion of GNP allocated to development tends to mask a more positive feature, namely that assistance has steadily grown in real terms, reflecting the economic growth of the donor countries over the last two decades. Since 1970, disbursements from the 18 DAC members have almost doubled (The figure for 1970-71 was $25.6 billion, at 1988 prices).

Of course the global figure conceals significant variations in the level of national contributions. As Table2 shows, a number of countries, notably in Scandinavia, comfortably surpass the 0.7 % ratio while others fall well short of this figure. Norway continues to head the table, closely followed by Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. Overall, eight of the 18 DAC members increased their contributions in real terms and six of these (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany and Sweden) also recorded an increase when the sums are measures as a proportion of GNP.

The Report provides a wealth of further statistics including details of the overall flow of financial resources to (or from) developing countries, the percentage breakdown of aid to individual countries by each DAC member and some more general information on GNP and population growth rates. These last paint a sombre picture. For example, of the 23 LLDCs for which figures are available, 16 suffered negative growth rates during the 1980s. The position for other developing countries was only slightly better. In other words, despite the development efforts of the past 20-30 years, the already wide gap between rich and poor countries in the world continues to grow.

This conclusion does little to enhance the reputation of development policies and their implementation by donor and recipient alike. Indeed, the lack of growth suggests that the policy is not so much one of development, as of ‘holding the line’.

In responding to this, some donors might argue, with a certain justification, that money has been wasted in the past and that progress depends largely on developing countries putting their own houses in order. There is a counter argument, however, which cannot easily be refuted. $46.7 billion may sound like a great deal of money, but it amounts to a mere $10 for each inhabitant of the developing world. It must be doubted whether sustainable development can be bought so cheaply.

The annual DAC Report is a useful and comprehensive document which gives a frank picture of the current position and seeks to map out future approaches. The 1990 issue points to a reorientation of policy but not yet to an increased commitment in resources. Whether the development challenges of the 1990s, particularly in the environmental field, can be met without such an increase, remains to be seen.

Table 2: ODA performance of DAC countries in 1988 and 1989