New Horizons for Development Co-operation and a Momentous Institution at the Crossroads

It was in 1960 when a few countries founded the Development Assistance Group, a platform that as the DAC soon later became sheltered under the umbrella of the OECD. After almost 60 years of work, instrumental in the creation of the post-war development paradigm and being influential at a grande scale, this classical locus of development assistance finds itself in a changed environment. Other players with different strategies and procedures impact increasingly on what was - in retrospect - working in a kind of home zone. With the current and two former chairs as well as important former and present members of the DAC’s secretariat and academic experts in the room, the frame for a thorough investigation into the state of affairs was set.

Transnational aid systems span the globe since the 1950ies and developed from bilateral 'aid' procedures between European nation states and their colonies. The European Welfare State was a precondition for this more systematic structuring of aid (G. Bracho) and countries started to coordinate their activities. The foundation of the DAC was due to this need for coordination in the Cold War atmosphere, invented as a platform of likeminded state actors with the target to effectuate payments and exchange best practise in a variety of fields. But how inclusive was this? During the conversations, the DAC emerged as a mysterious and little-known but unique and compact multilateral group that was instrumental in the creation of the post-war development paradigm.

J. Brian Atwood, a certainly exceptional former Chair of the DAC, in his Käte Hamburger Lecture reflected on shortcomings, pitfalls but also brave decisions of the Committee and its members from an insider perspective. His self-critical stance enabled a much deeper understanding of specific reasons, why the Committee is seen today by many as 'a very unequal global institution' (K. Freistein), and notwithstanding several adjustments, whereby the organization obviously wants to actively engage with new actors.  The China-DAC Study Group, formed in 2009, works today as an action-oriented Roundtable. A keen interest of the DAC in cooperating with China was evident. Because China, different in that sense for example from Russia, 'has a global approach', as one participant noticed. Several Arab donor states also have strengthened relations with the DAC in recent years.

The structure of the development cooperation system on a global scale is on the move and the need for reform has clear structural reasons. This is, because other communication and negotiation platforms dealing with global issues have set the agenda in recent years and also provided a different model of inclusion. The complex negotiation process leading to the Paris Declaration on Climate Change and the advancement of the MDGs into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have provided formats that include all states concerned, whereas the DAC framework still clearly is something for donors, with recipient countries rarely at the table. It was fitting that with reference to Marcel Mauss' seminal work, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr presented a closer look at the delicate relationship triggered by gifts, especially when the recipients are unable to reciprocate.

The impression in general is that the DAC structure has not changed substantially since the 60ies (R. Woodward). On the other hand, chairwoman Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, who wants to be 'a little bit more challenging for members', seems to be in favour of newly established SDG-ministries at the national level, which would mean an expansion of scope for these ministries, exceeding the topics of proper DAC expertise.

The DAC may still have something to capitalize on, resulting from decades of experience with development projects and their coordination worldwide. The committee wants to further cultivate accountability as its topic of expertise (Attwood) but may have to transform itself from a club with universal pretence.

That composition as a compact club of donors allowed the DAC to play a meaningful role in the post-war developments mentioned above but has increasingly become an obstacle in advancing these agendas in a more complex, multipolar world. 'With a better understanding of its history, the DAC should be better equipped to face its uncertain future. Our very unique workshop in Duisburg made a first step in that direction', as the meetings initiator Gerardo Bracho, a Mexican diplomat and associate senior expert fellow at the Centre, summarized it in his final statement.