In Pursuit of Development

The power of ideas and metaphors in international development policy – Desmond McNeill

Episode Summary

Dan Banik and Desmond McNeill discuss the role and influence of ideas and metaphors in development, the contradictions of foreign aid and the potential for financing global public goods.

Episode Notes

In global development, ideas have power and some ideas or concepts such as social capital, human development, the informal sector, and sustainable development have been highly influential. The development agenda also includes metaphors that can shape how we think and hence how we act. 

Professor Desmond James McNeill has worked extensively on issues related to global governance, aid, and sustainable development and on the links between research and policy. He was director of the Centre for Development and the Environment at the University of Oslo from 1992 to 2001. And from 2001 and until a couple of years ago, he was Head of Research, and Director of the Centre’s Research School.


Professor Dan Banik, University of Oslo, Twitter: @danbanik  @GlobalDevPod

Episode Transcription

Banik                    Desmond, it is fantastic to actually have a live guest in my basement studio today. Welcome!

Neill                     Thank you very much and congratulations on the programme.

Banik                    I'd like to start our conversation by asking you to reflect a bit on the role of ideas in development. There are, as you know, so many ideas and buzzwords that keep cropping up all the time in academic work, in policy work, in newspaper articles, you name it. How has the idea of development as you see it, how has it evolved over the years? Surely, there are some ideas that were in fashion at some point of time, but perhaps these are no longer in fashion.

Neill                     Ideas certainly have been changing over time, they come and go, but I'm interested in the power of ideas, the power of ideas over how we think, how we act, and often the power of ideas is linked to the power of the institutions that promote them. I mean, some of the ideas come from academia, some from other institutions, but I did some work on a project which is called sort of jokingly the CANDID project. When CANDID was an acronym for the creation, adoption, negation, and distortion of ideas in development. But the acronym itself teaches you something because the moment I told people about this project, that sounds very interesting. So, this is already a way of selling a good idea and the ideas that we studied with a colleague Morton Boris were the informal sector, which came from academia originally, but it was taken up by the ILO. And sustainable development, of course, which was promoted by the Brundtland Commission and social capital. Interestingly, actually Putnam used the term, but most people have forgotten about that because anyone who's taken up by the World Bank and promoted then it took off. And so, when I say take off, what we did was trace how these things literally took off in quantitative terms, in academic work, in books, and in organisations like the World Bank. And what we demonstrated was, that ideas do have an influence, especially if they're promoted by institutions, but also that, if they have originally a sort of analytical edge, cutting edge, it tends to get lost and blurred.

Banik                    So, which idea then comes to mind if we were to say that this was a really successful, well packaged idea that had considerable impact in development theory, in development practice. What comes to mind?

Neill                     Well, the thing was, I mean the informal sector was initially a very good one. It got people suddenly realising, and especially economists realising there are people out there who were working very busily but they weren't employed. I mean, it started in fact with Richard Jolly and others on an ILO mission to Kenya. And they happened to meet an anthropologist who took them to the slums in Kenya, in Nairobi, and found a lot of people doing a lot of work, and so they needed a term for this, and they used Keith Hart’s word informal sector. The problem was the informal sector then became overused. Informal this and informal that. And so, everything became sort of informal. And it became unhelpful. But if you take another one, which I think has been more successful is human development. I wrote a thing on human development. The power of the idea. Because I think that has been more successful than some of the others, and again because of the UNDP. And there are problems with it still, but I think if I was to look at one of those that you could call more successful I would call it human development.

Banik                    It appears to me that how an idea is adopted by, say, an influential agency such as the World Bank. That for me is crucial and I'm thinking that there has to be something good about the idea, something that is worthwhile. And then there is this aspect of the idea being promoted by, say, a champion, an individual, somebody who's influential, a well-known academic or policymaker. A politician who proposes a term that later is believed to have analytical rigor and then there is also the other aspect of timing, which I would imagine is pretty crucial in this context.

Neill                     Absolutely, and social capital is a good example because the point about social capital is that social networks matter, yes. And anthropologists and sociologists have known about this a long time. The World Bank take it on and sort of economise it. Firstly, they seem to suggest this is a whole new insight. But secondly, they send setup to measure it and even to build it. And that's where things go badly wrong.

Banik                    But it was Robert Putnam's influential 1993 book Making Democracy Work, which in many ways made this idea very popular. I mean social capital as an idea was suddenly back in fashion, and I suppose the popularity of Putnam's book helped also in getting the World Bank to embrace the concept of social capital.

Neill                     Absolutely. It was Robert Putnam’s version of social capital that was taken up. And of course, his argument, very crudely, was a comparison of the economic success or failure of North and South Italy. But it was an argument about the importance of social capital for economic growth, and that’s where the World Bank thought it was a useful concept to develop.

Banik                    The informal economy or the informal sector is very much in the news these days. In this pandemic age, where there is now considerable focus on the plight of people who don’t have the luxury of working from home like us but need to venture out every day to make a living. When you think about human development, of course, I’m thinking about Amartya Sen and Maqbul ul Haq having pioneered the idea, and UNDP embracing the idea and issuing the first annual Human Development Report in 1990. You think the human development idea is still relevant today? I often get the impression that it has lost its edge somehow.

Neill                     Well, last year the International Science Organisation commissioned a number of people, and I was one of them, to comment on precisely that question. You know, is it still relevant? And I did a little bit of a rereading of the material, and I found, although I think it still has a lot of relevance, that criticism I would make is that it was in fact too much focused on the individual. It underestimated the importance of the social. And Kofi Annan, it is a nice quote from him saying what a wonderful term it was, but in fact, the way he expressed it was in terms of the individual. And certainly, in these days, I think it's important to emphasise the social as much as the individual.

Banik                    Yeah, and it's not so surprising given that Amartya Sen has been working on the capability approach, the role of individual freedoms and choices. I remember, initially there was no emphasis, at least in the Human Development Index, on measuring political empowerment or highlighting matters of exclusion or inclusion in political decision-making. But what I think is also interesting about human development, and many of the successful ideas is that they're often not too specific and at the same time perhaps not too fuzzy. Initially, as you know when the UNDP operationalized the Human Development Index it was about income. It was about literacy and life expectancy at birth and then subsequently they added new dimensions and when that happens, I think the idea loses a bit of its edge.

Neill                     Absolutely, and that's one of the problems of course, to some extent, the success of the idea was that they were able to have this index which one would talk about. But they were absolutely right. Every year they feel they have to come up with something new and very often what was new was yet another indicator and that was another example of this blurring that takes place every time. But also, an example of another problem I'm interested in, which is one of measurement and quantification. This huge focus on measuring everything which I think has been in many ways problematic.

Banik                    So how is the popularity of an idea, in your view, related to our ability to measure it? If we could rank the performance of individuals and countries in an index and somehow track progress of specific variables, would that be more appealing versus broad and all-encompassing concepts such as sustainable development? So basically, I'd like to know a bit more on the relationship between the popularity of an idea and the measurability of the idea.

Neill                     Well, I don't think they're necessarily related. In the sense I think the attractiveness of many of these ideas is that you think, yes, focus. Firstly, it makes you focus on something which is important, but secondly, usually it makes you focus or encourages you to focus in a certain way, to see it in a certain way, and that's very useful. And so, it creates an insight. So, I don't think necessarily that it's the measurability that's attractive, but once an idea has come about then people want to measure it and SDGs is the prime example. I mean, there are many positive things about the SDGs which I'd be happy to talk about, but one of the negative things, to my mind, is the incredible focus on measurement. And I did a project on this a couple of years ago and I wrote an article on sustainable agriculture indicator 2.4.1. and this indicator has been discussed in committees and they finally decided that they needed 11 sub-indicators. So, we have a one of 173 indicators, then subdivided into several 11 sub-indicators. Now this is to me, it is measurement gone mad and yet this seems to be the way things often.

Banik                    The biggest idea of all is perhaps development. Development means different things to different people, and a first set of issues of course relates to who's doing development for whom, but also as you just mentioned, even when we do agree on what development is when we try to operationalize that into some sort of an indicator, a lot of features can actually get lost in translation.

Neill                     But one of the major problems is that development has, as you know, almost from the start, been equated with economic growth. And firstly, that's a simplistic connection, but it’s now increasingly becoming extraordinarily dangerous connection, because of the concern with the environment. So, if I may, I talk a little bit about some work I did on metaphor because I'm interested in ideas, as you've explained. And I'm interested in the power of metaphor in the way we think about development. And so, I looked at different ones, starting with one of the earliest of all, which this is this concept of take off into sustained growth. You know, very powerful metaphor. Modernization theory, which seemed to paint a picture of a simplistic and optimistic linear development. But there's very powerful metaphor, and then we had economic growth being seen as most desirable, and then a little bit of questioning about the question of economic growth. What about equity? What about distribution had the whole redistribution with growth? But that problem was solved with other metaphors. The trickle-down effect or the rising tide raises all boats. You know, there's no shortage of metaphors to tell us that the poor people will benefit as well. And then we have development aid and again a great optimism about aid. But despite the positive aid, despite how little aid is compared to the need, you nevertheless have this idea of a catalyst, which suggests we only need a little thing and that'll change the world. Or you have pump-priming as another one, so we are very clever apparently at producing metaphors to blur the issues. But coming to sustainable development. In a sense, we are becoming, or development itself, we're coming to the basic metaphor of all. Development, the word itself is so powerful it’s difficult to think about the opposite. We're having trouble these days, what about degrowth? It's a hopeless term, you know, and so development is in a way, the sort of core metaphor of the whole of our work. And it’s a misleading one because especially when it's connected to, equated with economic growth, then it is deeply problematic.

Banik                    Yeah, development is often seen to be exclusively understood in sort of positive terms. It is sometimes defined as a purposeful movement towards better, more liveable outcomes. At least that's how Atul Kohli, who's taught me, and he's also been on the show, that's how he would define development. So, I think one of the many interesting things I find in your work is that firstly, metaphors can be misleading and that they tend to convey a sense of optimism that we finally found the answer to a wicked problem. You mentioned foreign aid and I think there is perhaps more pressure in the aid world to communicate that optimism right along the lines of saying basically, in case you are unsure of something, don't worry. We have the answer. We know exactly what to do. It is only a matter of getting the right amount of finance. So, I think there's something there to think about that why we may want to be optimistic. It is problematic if that optimism is misplaced or misleading.

Neill                     And I've invented a rather provocative term for this, which I call culpable optimism. Now, optimism, of course, is a wonderful thing. And I'm an optimist. So, what do I mean by culpable modernism? And this is a situation where we are optimistic in our giving of aid and yet those who suffer or at least fail to benefit or is not us, it's somebody else. So, we're culpable in the sense that this is not well-founded. Our optimism is not well-founded. And yet, those who suffer from the fact that it's not well-founded, it is not us who suffer. So, I think this is a real problem within our foreign aid, this excessive optimism, and an unwillingness to recognise limitations and to do a soul-searching evaluation of what we do.

Banik                    For many years I've been talking about what works in development because I felt there was too much pessimism in development and what you describe is of course the opposite. That perhaps maybe realistic optimism is better than this kind of projection of naive hope that somehow things will work out in the end even if there isn't an adequate proof of that happening.

Neill                     Exactly. And also, I'm concerned about evaluations. Of course, there's no shortage of evaluations, huge numbers, evaluations of projects and programmes, and so on. But evaluation departments and we have done some work on this. They say evaluation is about accountability and learning. And I say sorry, there is a tendency for the two to contradict each other. If you want to learn, you want to be open as possible about the mistakes you've made. If you're going to be accountable, you don't want to be as open as possible about the mistakes you've made, and this is putting the argument simply. But there is a real problem about trying to learn from our mistakes if at the same time we're being increasingly cornered to account. And this is what's happening in recent years. More and more evaluations. Reviews of our performance against increasingly stringent quantitative targets and it may not be helpful.

Banik                    The counterargument would be that we weren't measuring what we were doing effectively before. Everything thus far has been somewhat vague. We thought our efforts were helpful, but they perhaps were not, and that's why we need rigorous regular evaluations and some of the findings from these evaluation studies will maybe help us to design and implement programmes better, will help us to actually learn something new. Don't you think something good sometimes comes out of these evaluations?

Neill                     Certainly, something good comes out of an evaluation which gets at what the serious problems are. But very often the best way of doing that is to be able to have an honest conversation with the people who are involved and that is not encouraged by feeling that they are going to be measured and they're going to suffer if they are found to have made mistakes. So yes, there's a place for quantification in it, certainly, but it needs to be based on the insights in a realistic open discussion about what the real problems are.

Banik                    You co-edited a special issue of the Global Policy Journal with Sakiko Fukuda-Parr a couple of years ago, and I thought it was a wonderful special issue and if I'm not mistaken, one of the major arguments there was there are some really innovative and radical ideas in the 2030 agenda, such as SDG 10 on reducing inequality. And yet, when these ambitious goals are translated into indicators, something happens and one ends up measuring something that is not exactly or nearly as powerful as the originally formulated goal, but something that ends up being of lesser importance.

Neill                     Yeah, I mean that's a very good summary. The SDGs are commendable, certainly by comparison to the MDGs in a number of ways. The agenda itself is radical, and if 190+ countries to agree on that it is very impressive and it was country driven. You know, it was not designed by UN technocrats. And for historical reasons, it makes a particular emphasis on the environment, and it looks not just at poor countries, but rich countries. There are lot of positive things about it, but as you rightly summarise in that special issue, we're looking at the dangers of so many of those positive things. Being lost in this search for detailed quantification and measurement and performance.

Banik                    These days we have this ongoing debate that some ideas, like sustainable development, are too radical, too wishy-washy to make an impact. And on this show Gro Harlem Brundtland told me last year that while sustainable development as an idea, it's taken more than three decades to become somewhat mainstream, that isn't too bad given how radical the concept was originally thought to be when she and her colleagues proposed a definition of sustainable development in that 1987 report Our Common Future. Actually, to come to think of it, perhaps one reason why sustainable development has been successful in the recent, it's precisely because it is fuzzy, right? It is all-encompassing. You could put anything in it. And if leaders are to agree on a new idea, it has to be sufficiently vague and diffuse to garner attention and acceptance. And so, it seems to me there's this tension between striving for precision, measurement, and clarity, which will not perhaps result in widespread agreement and consensus versus achieving international consensus with a vague idea. So how should one then think about global governance and this international goal-setting agenda when, on the one hand, we may want ideas to be vague, but on the other hand, we may also want them to be somewhat precise?

Neill                     I don't think we want them to be vague. Obviously. You know academics, we have this idea that you should, can, and should have very clear definitions of things and there is a great tension between that and the reality of the world of politics. But for me, I believe that there is great benefit in having sharp, clearly defined terms. Now, I recognise that what happens in political debate is this is a fuzzy making, but I didn't see that as positive. I see that as problematic, and certainly if you're going to have measurement and even then, you can't even have a clear definition of the things you're going to measure, then you're in real problems. So obviously, there's a tension between the ideal world of the academic where we have a nice, finely defined term, but I don't see it as a positive thing that the need for political consensus leads to actually a fuzzy concept.

Banik                    Yeah, I was thinking more about world leaders. You know, who sign on the dotted line and then later when they go back home and they try to sell the idea to their voters, their people. They may be somewhat inclined to put whatever they wanted to that idea which in turn means that the idea can get stretched, and I think a good example in this context is how the SDGs have been promoted in some countries such as India and China. In recent years I've been writing about this in an article how the leaders of India and China tend to portray the success of the SDGs in their countries as being crucial for achieving the global goals at the world level, at the global level. And what these leaders have been particularly good at is once they return from international summits, they have to operationalize these goals, these global goals to suit their national local realities. And since the entire 2030 agenda, the sustainable development agenda is framed in voluntary terms, you could do basically what you want. You could operationalize the goals however you want, and somehow yet couch it under this broad SDG umbrella. I wanted to go back to the fact that some concepts had become part and parcel of the development jargon. There are certain terms such as empowerment or capacity-building, terms that are increasingly used, they are widespread. We sometimes even use them quite uncritically, and when I speak with the UN or World Bank officials, development NGOs, aid agency personnel. They're constantly using some of this jargon that appear to be well-established, but it isn't always clear how they are operationalized, how they are used. I also sometimes am bombarded with new acronyms in the international development discourse. Acronyms that I'm not familiar with. So, anyway, what do you think about a term such as empowerment which is often used in connection with, say, gender equality? In relation to decision-making, in relation to power imbalances in society, what is good about empowerment or for that matter the term capacity-building? What do you think is problematic in how they are used?

Neill                     The power of ideas, I think is very broad. It goes beyond buzzwords. The power of categories to shape the way we think. And not just in development aid policy but even more broadly, and I think now I'm talking about the CANDID project and so on. I think probably my interest in that was partly because of my experience in aid and my frustrations with that, but also because I happened to do a PhD thesis on Marxist context of federalism. I'm not a Marxist, I think communism is a hopeless mistake, but Marx had some very interesting things to say about, in a sense, the power of ideas. Because what he was saying, very simply, was not just a critique of capitalism, but a critique of the way the capitalism is presented to us through the economic categories. So, he says profit is the return on capital. Rent is the return on land. Wages are the return to labour. This is the way it's presented to us, and this is the way we take it and that is not questioned. And so, these concepts are being incredibly powerful in a sense, naturalising the capitalist system, and so I think probably it was there that work that got me interested in this idea that the ideas themselves are hugely powerful. Now within the aid world more specifically, the people who are being influenced are aid workers, donors and so on, and they are looking for new ideas all the time and they're responding in the case of empowerment, for example, they're responding to a very important value debate about politics about who decides. And then the word empowerment comes up and, in a sense, becomes depoliticized. It becomes drained of its significance and becomes again technical operational. There's something inherently contradictory about me saying I am now going to empower you. I mean really, and in relation to whom? So, it becomes a cosy, comfortable term which actually fails to face up to the direct political challenge which it's actually trying to resolve, at least recognise.

Banik                    In the last few years, I actually see a bit of a pushback. You know, against that, pushback against the idea that the Global North should be empowering somehow the Global South. And I think the Black Lives Matter movement has had important implications. For example, in relation to aid policies and I've also noticed how southern-based NGOs are now pushing back increasingly against the dominance of what they think is the dominance of many northern NGOs, who are believed to typically ask their southern counterparts, their southern partners to do the bulk of the work, take all the risks, but the northern NGOs end up pocketing all the money. I see a new trend in this sector.

Neill                     Absolutely. And it's interesting. I have very mixed feelings about the increasing power role of northern NGOs, and I think that the points you make are absolutely right.

Banik                    But what about capacity-building? How do we tell other people we're going to build their capacity? Is it a matter of facilitating development by providing the money? The technical know-how, knowledge, sharing our experiences, or are we then also telling them there's a specific sequential order of doing things. Doing things in a certain manner that resembles how we've achieved development in our parts of the world. And then still others would say, ask, how can we even measure capacity on whose terms, based on who's understanding of capacity? Is it measuring capacity in relation to effectiveness? Is it about creating awareness? Is it about building capacity in a timely fashion? So, what do you think about capacity building which has also become a huge buzzword, but apparently also entrenched, now increasingly in the mainstream development jargon?

Neill                     Yeah, absolutely right. And it's again a contradiction right from the early days of development aid, where in the early days I was in Tanzania from 1969 to 1971 as a volunteer. There were virtually no Tanzanian graduates at all, so I was fortunate enough to have quite a responsible job. And those days they would say, well, you know, 5-10 years capacity-building, then they'll all be able to do it. Now we are 50 years later. We're still talking about capacity-building. And so clearly the bar is being raised all the time. The expectations are being raised all the time. Capacity building is not an easy task and I worked with a consultant for a few years where the counterpart training was important. The idea was that consultants would both produce and report and train their counterparts. It never happened, and so in fact, you know counterparts were helpful in terms of opening doors and collecting data and so on, but the training of your counterpart was never really formally made, and of course again, the incentives are not there. Why should you as a consultant, or indeed an NGO, really take it seriously? So, it's not a new demand or expectation. But the bar has been raised, expectations being what is required of suitably able civil servants or someone one is working with. I was enormously impressed when I worked for two years in Sri Lanka and had the opportunity to work with extremely able local people. Luckily, I was not an expert that I was just sitting in their office, and they were extraordinarily competent. And I thought how arrogant it is for aid donors to come here and talk about counterpart training and raising their competence. I'm sorry, these people are enormously competent.

Banik                    This is then the opportune moment to talk about your work on the contradictions of foreign aid. A book first published by you in 1981, which has recently been reissued by Routledge. Thank you so much for giving me a paper copy which I've really enjoyed reading because what you wrote four decades ago appears still extremely relevant today. In the introduction of the book, you write that much of what is wrong with foreign aid is caused not by incompetence or corruption, but by the complex machinery which has been developed to enable aid to be transmitted from donor to recipient. Is that still the case you think?

Neill                     Yes, to a very large extent. The machinery gets more and more complicated. The expectations get higher and higher, and the complexity of quantification and evaluation and theories. Now you need theory of change in order to testify a project that you're going to do. So, I'm afraid the answer, short answer to a large extent, yes.

Banik                    In much of the book written in 1981, you were concerned with, and I'm trying to paraphrase here, that there's the problem of the actual volume of aid. And even today there are these endless debates in Norway as in the UK and elsewhere on how much we should give, how much we should give as aid, whether what we give is generous enough. So, politicians are often a bit hung up on that aspect. Is it 0,7% of gross national income, or 1% of GNI? And another aspect, of course has to do with, once we agree on giving a certain amount, can we get rid of the money quickly and efficiently? So, whether aid is being disbursed efficiently and having the intended impact, these are things you wrote about in 1981. And it seems to me that these are some of the issues we continue to discuss today.

Neill                     I mean the volume is clearly far too little in terms of the potential amount that could usefully be used. The need, if you like, the 1% target has been helpful because any number is going to be arbitrary and 1% is a useful one. There are very few countries, Norway among them, have managed to achieve that. But clearly, the volume is important, but what is one of the main primary contradictions I point out in the book is that although the need is so enormous, the problem is, as you briefly mentioned, the problem is that country donors have difficulty in spending the money for anybody outside this system. This seems completely absurd. And yet it is that it is the case.

Banik                    And is that partly because, and you touched upon this slightly earlier, is it because we have developed new criteria? New checklist? Just so that we continue to raise the bar and thereby make it even more difficult for aid to be disbursed.

Neill                     Yes, we raise the bar all the time and the expectations in terms of what can be achieved. But also, the sort of complexity of indicators and measurements of what has been achieved are so great. So yes, now the two. If you like justifications for that. One is doubts about corruption and doubts about competence, and we talked briefly about the one about competence, and I think that is no longer a particular vibe. The one about corruption is problematic, it's true. But that is the main reason why donors hang on, cling on to all these conditionalities which make it so difficult to spend the money. Sometimes the individual donor can solve the problem by simply handing over the money to another donor so that World Bank trust funds, for example, are financed by bilateral donors who hand over the problem to somebody else. But again, the World Bank itself has problems because again, they have to be able to show the money has been well used. And you cannot criticise the intention, but the outcome is this extraordinary situation where it actually becomes problematic to spend money.

Banik                    It seems to me that since you wrote this book, what actually has changed is perhaps the level of information that is available today. The internet investigative journalism, podcasts like this, YouTube videos. Because of globalisation, because of new technology it is now easier to share information. But then you also have in some of our rich donor countries the taxpayer expecting results. Or perhaps we like to think that taxpayers are actually interested in aid. But there is that aspect of taxpayers maybe being swayed by negative press reports about wastage, about allegations of corruption when in reality much of the aid money, many of the projects are perhaps having the desired effect, and since just one or two negative reports may sway public opinion against aid, the aid bureaucracy ends up being excessively obsessed. I think sometimes trying to sanitise the narrative as much as possible. And in that process, I've seen in the field that you may end up basically giving money to the big organisations, the big established audited fancy office building organisation. Not necessarily the innovative small rural NGO that does not have the required audited administrative setup, but nonetheless doing really good work.

Neill                     Well, yes, I think it's called The Daily Mail effect in the UK because they're scared stiff that somebody will find in the report in the Daily Mail some little scandal which causes all the taxpayers to be outraged. And so yes, the result is that you have increasing demands in demand I would argue, which are often not made on sectors in our own country. I mean you have huge cost overruns on projects in this country in Norway and in UK, and so on. And these are reported and then sort of forgotten. But somehow in aid it becomes much more serious. And so, you have these extensively sophisticated cost-benefit analysis before we even engage on project. When I first started working as a consultant, I was meant to do a cost-benefit analysis study and it all seemed fairly complicated, but I contacted the UK Treasury and I said you must do this stuff. You know, can you tell me what's a really latest stuff to be read? And they say, well, actually what we do is much less sophisticated than the development administration. The ODA, they do much more complex, sophisticated analysis. I thought this is absurd, but it was true. And to some extent that may even now be the case that we have much greater expectations of aid projects. At least we are more concerned about things possibly going wrong.

Banik                    When you think about your time in Tanzania, in Sri Lanka, about the time you wrote this book, what in your view has actually changed? We've already discussed the role of information and I would imagine there are people in donor countries who are much more demanding these days, but also individuals and organisations, policymakers in recipient countries were better able to articulate their needs, tell donors about their demands. There may be many more professional NGOs these days than before. Many of our students who are well versed in development theory and practise are manning some of these important posts, and in the UN, in aid agencies, and the embassies. What else in your view has changed in the aid world since 1981?

Neill                     I would pick up on some of the things you mentioned. I mean the huge increase in the number of NGOs and their abilities and their funds and so on. Number of experts has gone down, the sort of old-fashioned experts. Paid out, going out to run a project for your own donut. But to some extent being replaced by NGOs. One of the major things to this change is, of course, a huge increase in the competence of the civil servants in these countries. I mean, there are huge number of graduates. Many leave, of course. You know with the brain drain and so on, but nevertheless, you know over 40 years as a huge increase in level of competence. So, you're so running parallel to that? I think apparent increase in expectations so that the ability to meet the expectations is in some ways no more than it was 40 years ago.

Banik                    Another area where I think things have actually changed is this move from bilateral to multilateral aid. I was mentioning this to you earlier about how this recent debate that I participated in where we were discussing a paper where the authors were basically asking whether this growing focus on the multilateral aspect of aid these days in countries such as Norway, whether this gradual shift away from the bilateral, whether it's a good thing? And during that debate I was reminded of something that both you and I were part of many years ago when we headed the reference group of a trust fund in the World Bank financed by the governments of Norway and Finland. The Trust Fund on Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development (TFESSD) and I've been thinking and reflecting of late on that experience when. I don't know if you agree, but even though Norway and Finland were giving, I suppose several million dollars to the World Bank every year, this was nothing really compared to the hundreds of millions or billions that the World Bank spends every year. So, the amount of money that the trust fund that we were part of was giving was small, but to use the metaphor it was having a catalytic effect. The idea was that through the trust fund, we were able to motivate and encourage the bank and bank staff to actually do innovative work on inequality, on cash transfers, things that they were complaining that they did not get funding to do from the bank's own core funding. So, what are your thoughts there on this shift in some countries, from the bilateral to increasingly more multilateral aid? Surely, there are pitfalls involved. You can't do too much of one thing.

Neill                     Well, yeah. First, let me reflect on the trust fund. Because I agree that was a very interesting experience and for me, it was extremely valuable and the feedback I've had from people in the bank is they also found it very valuable. And as you say, it was not a lot of money, but one could argue was catalytic in the sense what we were giving what we're giving money to was not projects in the field so much as new initiatives which could be tested out which would not otherwise have been funded or easily funded within the bank. But the other aspect which to me was equally, if not more important, was that it enabled us to have good conversations, critical conversations with people in the World Bank. Instead of saying, here's the money, and we like the way you're spending it. We'd say no, we, we actually don't like some of the other things you're doing, or we would use the opportunity of going through the portfolio to say what we liked or didn't like and why. And we would have 2-3 meetings each day, and so we had time to do really interesting critical debate from an outside perspective of what was positive and negative in the bank.

Banik                    I would like to believe that this was because of the architecture, the way in which we'd set up the trust fund. There was this reference group, a diverse group of people in the reference group with different types of expertise, a mix of diplomats, policymakers, and we were the academic go-between together with other representatives in this reference group, trying to manage the expectations from both sides, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the world. And I thought having the kinds of debates that we did, the discussions that we had with people in the bank. Those were really, really useful.

Neill                     Well, that's why I mean, as you remember, I chatted and then after I left you chatted, and so, if we got in as it were in a senior position and in a position to make critical remark and indeed invited to make critical comments. So, I think it was a very valuable experience and a learning experience also for our stand for 888 people in Norway. And so, I think that was excellent. However, on the broader question of bilateral aid versus multilateral aid. In many ways, there is a sort of logic to having more multilateral aid. That pooling of resources, pooling of competence, it relates to some extent to this whole recent debate about global public goods. If we can talk about that for a moment because I think the concept of global public goods is a very useful one. It leads often to an argument which to some extent is very credible that do they need a global organisation to be in charge of dealing with this one problem, if you like the major problem in a sense is that you need to finance these global public goods. So that, logically it's not enough to talk about how you're going to spend the money. You've got to also start thinking about whether one is going to come from. You need actually to think about an idea, which I promoted 40 years ago of a global tax. I mean, you need a guaranteed regular source of funding before you can even begin to talk seriously about providing funding on a very different basis.

Banik                    There's certainly been quite a lot of talk in recent months about global public goods and how we're going to finance global development in the next few years. In the next 10 years or so. Do you think that we need to further strengthen multilateral mechanisms, multilateral aid? Or do you think there's still room for the bilateral aid component?

Neill                     I'm contradictory on this because I think logically there's a good argument for more multilateralism. On the other hand, the question then would be who is controlling these multilateral bodies? And in the sense, can the bilateral, to some extent, have a role in exploring other possibilities, critiquing perhaps the role of the multilateral? I guess I'm slightly ambivalent on that one. But in a sense, there's a certain logic to saying, does it make sense to have so many different entities doing much the same thing? And the same applies indeed to NGOs, so it's not immediately clear for me which is the right way to go.

Banik                    On this show, I've discussed the feasibility of providing global public goods with several of my guests. And my major problem with the idea, as much as I like it, is that I don't see the incentives for countries to provide the finance for something that they can't take credit for. I mean, obviously, one of the things that makes Norway or many other donor countries pump money into aid is soft power. It is for all the adulation, the praise that comes with being a generous donor. Somehow, getting a seat at the table reserved for the bigger players. By financing global public goods, all of that goodwill, all of that soft power may disappear. So, particularly if you don't retain some of that bilateral element, don't you think?

Neill                     Well, I do. And I wrote about this in a recent paper. I think there's a lot of interest in the idea of global public goods, but as you rightly say, I think the Norwegian taxpayer derives some satisfaction, some sort of warm feeling, and why not? I don't see any harm in that, from the fact that they are generous givers of aid. And contributing maybe even through some global tax to global public goods doesn't give you the same sort of satisfaction.

Banik                    This reminds me of the Chinese strategy that has been relatively successful in some parts of the world, especially on the African continent. The results are often visible because of what is built in terms of infrastructure. All of this can be traced back to China. Whether it's coming for the Chinese government or a big private company or a small family business, it doesn't matter. Everything is packaged as coming from China. Of course, this can also be a problem, because if the Chinese national is caught smuggling or doing something illegal, then it's also China who's to blame. But largely I would say there are some benefits of packaging something and then creating this narrative of one sort of Chinese modular development, however imprecise that is. But it is a bit similar to how Norwegians talk about the Norwegian welfare state model, how Norway became an egalitarian society. So, there's this idea that we'd like to import some of our values to the people that are recipients of our generosity, that they can become a bit more like us. The criticism of this Western model, of course, is that when donors have provided, say, budget support to low-income countries, budget support as a part of aid, the donors have not been able to take credit for the money that has been provided in local context. So, citizens in recipient countries are not saying we have better healthcare because of Norway because they may not be aware of who's financing the service. So, branding our stuff, branding our efforts appear to be increasingly important and that's why I'm not entirely sure how one would go about this global public goods agenda, promoting it. How are we going to get money for it without being able to take some credit for it?

Neill                     Well, I think you're right, and it's ironic. You know that the Chinese have been quite successful in branding themselves in the continent of Africa. You could argue that Norway has quite successfully branded themselves in the more international scene so that they always go on about Norway as a human humanitarian superpower and Norway punching above its weight in international policy circles. And to some extent that's true, and to a large extent I think that's because of initiatives and such as the generosity of Norwegian aid. So, you could say that branding perhaps has paid off for that international level, even if the people in African countries don't see the money going into their budget. So, I think in that sense that it may not be so problematic.

Banik                    What about the other country that is important in your life? The UK. You've had the Department of International Development, which of course is dismantled now. DFID was, I believe, an important actor in marketing, in promoting influential ideas and approaches in global development.

Neill                     Yes. I mean to give them their credit. I think they have been a source of many good and influential ideas. I've also noticed that a few meetings I've been at last few years a considerable arrogance. We know pretty well we wouldn't date as explicitly, but there's a certain arrogance in terms of confidence. Perhaps because they have a reputation which has been quite well deserved. They see themselves as having been at the forefront of many of the ideas about aid. 

Banik                    In hindsight and thinking back on all the work you've done and thinking about the contradictions of foreign aid. What do you think has really changed in the last four or five decades in global development? Where are you optimistic and where do you think there's a need to really tinker with or radically change things?

Neill                     Well, I mean the whole context has changed dramatically. You take the period of the MDGs, which people sometimes say they were success because poverty was largely reduced. And, of course, we know that the main reason for that was China's growth, right? So, you know the growth of the economy of China has been a huge change and similarly some other countries which have grown very rapidly. So, the overall context has changed. There are several countries which are no longer poor, weak countries. They are significant players on the international scene, so that has obviously changed the situation very substantially. And conversely UK, other European countries, US are relatively less important in those terms, so that in that sense that has been the most important change within aid. I think despite all these new ideas and new policies, the underlying continuity in the sense of the North giving money to the South and being in control and making increasing demands. So that relationship, the aid relationship as it's been described in the overall sense is still not very different.

Banik                    It was a real pleasure to have you visit my basement today. Thank you so much for coming on my show.

Neill                     Thank you very much, Dan.

Banik                    If you enjoyed this podcast, please spread the news among your friends and share it on social media. The Twitter handle for this podcast is @GlobalDevPod.

                             Thank you for listening to In Pursuit of Development with Professor Dan Banik from the University of Oslo Centre for Development and the Environment. Please email your questions, comments, and suggestions to