Changing Aid Modalities - An interview with Reina Buijs

Changing Aid Modalities - An interview with Reina Buijs

Development is change. On this - and more - we spoke with Reina Buijs, Deputy Director General for International Cooperation of the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

We have achieved a lot in fighting poverty, but we need to scale up to achieve our ambitions. How can we do this?
Eradicating extreme poverty is a major goal of our development work, as is promoting inclusive growth. The SDG’s provide a challenging policy umbrella for this ambition. The MDGs have set goals for developing countries only, but the SDG’s have been embraced by almost all countries in the world. Our commitment goes far beyond being ‘a donor’ nowadays. We are part of a joint agenda which connects us to other countries. We have made great strides in this field, but enough remains to be done. Being part of the joint SDG agenda means that we also have to be accountable to other countries. This summer we did just that at the UN by presenting our SDG report. It showed where we are on track, and where not, for instance when it comes to gender inequality.

A major challenge is how we finance the SDGs. When it comes to development, Official Development Assistance (ODA) will not be enough. That is why we explore how to leverage private money with innovative public funding. In Kenya for example, we work to convince private parties to invest in water supply by means of issuing bonds. The government can subsequently ensure that this water also reaches the poor. Effective innovative forms of collaboration like this - with governments, NGOs and the World Bank - can be scaled up by converting pilots into business propositions that appeal to the private sector.

In the end countries need to sustainably finance their own development. That is why we support them in setting up fair tax systems. This allows them to enlarge their domestic revenue: from citizens and from the private sector. Including international companies of course: big fish should not swim away.

Partnership is key here. Recently I visited Bangladesh, a country that is making great strides to get themselves out of poverty. The Netherlands has been its partner since its independence in 1971. We have invested in cooperating with the country. Bangladesh is now specifically seeking our expertise because key actors have come to know us as a neutral broker and reliable partner. In this way we capitalize on our long-term relationship. It illustrates that you can’t buy trust. You build it.

Reina Buijs during a visit to Bangladesh

Reina Buijs during a visit to Bangladesh

Turning to agriculture in Africa: investments come with low margins and big risks. How can we leverage private funding?
There is indeed some reluctance. Therefore we need to work on conditions that provide stability and predictability for investors. We have our programme ‘Geo-data for water,’ helping farmers determine when to sow their seeds, now that climate change distorts the traditional calendar. We also promote access to improved seed that is resistant to drought and salinization. Enablers like these provide investors with a bit more security.

At the same time interventions throughout the so called ‘value chain’ are needed. Subsistence farmers don’t produce for the market. Improving local production and access to markets is essential. I saw an inspiring example in Uganda recently. The ‘simple’ insight that a cow without water will not produce milk has led to deploying solar driven water pumps for cattle. It allows farmers to milk their cows twice a day, thus enlarging milk production. And it also sparked off setting up dairy cooperation. This enables them to supply milk in larger quantities and become interesting partners for dairy processors. Small farmers benefit from the cooling facilities, transport and marketing that such cooperation’s offer, providing them with income.

This is still considered ODA
ODA can be the trigger, but once such a cooperative makes more money it is able to purchase a large cooling tanks and distinguish themselves. That is no longer ODA. That is a sustainable way to use public funding.

Sustainability may come from unexpected angles. In Myanmar I met a woman who owned just a small plot on which she grew tomatoes. But she consciously invested in obtaining seeds from a Dutch company. By doing so - and by seeking some advice - she managed to triple her yield. I asked her what she did with the extra money and she told me, “I now have money to buy larger quantities of seed to cultivate more land, I give some money to the temple and my daughter can go to university.” This is how a small intervention can lead to changes that count, like investing in the future of one’s daughter.

Will we be able to attract private funding of projects? 
Investing in development is not their core business. Therefore we need well prepared, scalable and bankable businesslike proposals. We may ask companies to produce fairly and contribute to the development of ordinary people. But we should not ask them to provide things they are not made for. Partnerships need to define and endorse a common goal to which each partner can contribute from their own role. In that process parties can - and should – hold each other accountable.

And how should we explain this use of public funding to the broader public, the taxpayers?
For most people ODA is not top of mind, therefore it is important to let them recognize the issues. Climate change could be such an issue. In our part of the world our basement may be regularly flooded, but solving that is not too much trouble. But imagine yourself living in Bangladesh where 60% of the country is flooded annually. What impact does that have on day-to-day of ordinary people? Such questions make people connect, so that they can relate to it.

Self-interest can also be a trigger. People see young Africans coming to Europe for a better existence. If this is perceived as a burden to our systems, they may realize the importance of investing in jobs and perspective in the regions where these Africans come from.

Overall I think we should invest in creating a collective narrative on development that moves away from the dominant idea of helping the poor, and shows people’s strength and resilience instead. Connecting the human perspective to global issues.

Some years ago the Dutch government decided to change the long term subsidy arrangement with SNV. How do you look back at this process? 
Let me start by saying that I myself have worked for SNV in the past. Hands-on work with governments in developing countries. It was good back then, but that role is no longer necessary. SNV served every need, whether it was honey, nutrition, planning or fishing, literally everything. Fortunately they chose to focus on what they were really good at. SNV also decided to invest in local staff and exchange them internationally. Really inspiring. And effective.

I think that is SNV’s strength: aim to make yourself redundant and keep doing things that add value. Focus, raising funding from other sources, bringing parties together, utilizing the expertise of different stakeholders. I think that SNV made a very good choice here.

Several of our directors recently visited organizations that went through significant change. At SNV your CEO Allert van der Ham said: ‘Due to the fact that you forced us to detox, we have become what we are now. And in hindsight, we might have done this earlier.’

Again it shows how relationships in the world are changing. Developing countries have become much more articulate. Time for well-meant paternalism is long gone. We need to ask ourselves again and again, are we still needed? And if so, in which form?