Commentary by Terrence McKeegan, J.D.

September 30, 2010 (C-FAM) – A rock star's scandal and a surprising critique of aid programs last week underscored heightened criticism of international development efforts.

The two incidents upended the intended message of a summit on UN development policies, reflecting a growing disconnect between rhetoric and development results.

Rock star Bono, front man of the Irish group U2, was caught violating his own call for greater transparency and accountability, which he made in an op-ed piece for the New York Times. His opinions inspired the New York Post to examine the finances of Bono's own ONE Foundation, uncovering an emerging scandal widely reported by the media.

It seems ONE had $15 million in public donations during 2008, but distributed less than $200,000 to private charities combating poverty, according to IRS records.  The charity spent more than $8 million on salaries. The remainder went to advocacy, including pricey gift boxes hand-delivered to newsrooms to influence coverage of the UN summit.

The critique of UN policies, meanwhile, came from a surprising source: Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organization.  Scuttling her prepared remarks at an event sponsored by all of the major UN agencies, Chan warned that the international donor community hasn’t learned from past lessons in dealing with developing countries.

“We have to stop being arrogant and dictating what to do,” she said.

Donor countries too often impose their own agenda, leading to a lack of ownership on the part of recipient countries.  “If a country doesn’t own the plan, they have no motivation to deliver,” Chan said.

She also acknowledged that donor countries don't have a firm understanding of what they invest in, with no good measures of progress or failure.

Chan said that the UN agencies are not funding agencies, responding to repeated calls for “fresh money” from ministers of developing countries. Such requests should go to the World Bank, she said.

The issue of new money for development was a dominant theme of the UN Summit.  UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that agencies needed $169 billion to save the lives of more than 15 million women and children by improving access to health care.  A highly publicized event announced $40 billion in pledges from public and private sectors for the initiative, though critics said the total recycled at least half of the money from old commitments.

Despite the rhetoric of significant new investments in improving overall health care in developing countries, the commitments make clear an overwhelming emphasis on spending for political advocacy and family planning programs.  This reflects the section of the UN summit outcome document on maternal health, in which all but one of the 6 paragraphs focus on increasing access to family planning and sexual and reproductive health.

The Advance Family Planning initiative is as a typical example of the emerging dominance of rhetoric over projects in the development field. The twelve million dollars dedicated to this initiative don’t go to actual services or goods, but instead to advocacy to change national laws and policies to better reflect the donors’ ideological population agenda.

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