Tag: Foreign Aid

Does Foreign Aid Foster Female Empowerment?

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Over decades much attention has been devoted to the relationship between foreign aid and economic growth, while few studies have focused on the effects of foreign aid on female empowerment. This despite the fact that empowerment of girls and women is a key driver of development, and often an explicit objective of foreign aid. Using geo-coded data on aid project placement and household-level survey responses, Perrotta Berlin, Bonnier and Olofsgård (2023), show that foreign aid has a modest but robust effect on several dimensions of female empowerment. This is the case for both aid in general and gender-targeted aid, highlighting the potential of foreign aid to reduce gender inequalities. It is also found, though, that the impact is contingent on the context, and that there can even be a backlash in male attitudes towards female empowerment in more traditional communities.

The donor community has long been invested in the empowerment of women and girls, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development also includes gender equality as an explicit goal. Yet surprisingly little quantitative research has tried to make a broader assessment of the effect of foreign aid on gender equality measures.

This policy brief summarises a study by Perrotta Berlin, Bonnier and Olofsgård (2023) which addresses this question by matching the location of aid projects with geo-coded household surveys in Malawi between 2004 and 2010. Analysing the community-level impact on five different female empowerment indices, the study finds foreign aid to affect positively women’s empowerment across several dimensions. Furthermore, the authors find that gender-targeted aid has an additional impact on an index measuring women’s control over sexuality and fertility-related decisions and an index focusing on violence against women.

When considering areas with patrilineal land inheritance traditions, the results however partly shift, especially in relation to men’s attitudes. This implies that the success of foreign aid and gender-targeted aid in reducing gender inequalities may be conditional on the community context.

Gender Equality and Foreign Aid in Malawi

Malawi is highly dependent on foreign aid. Net official development assistance (ODA) has exceeded 10 percent of gross national income yearly since 1975, reaching as high as 23.5 percent in 2016 (World Bank, WDI database).

In recent years, reforms have been undertaken by the Malawian government to improve gender equality. The minimum legal age of marriage was raised from 15 to 18 through the 2015 Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill, and the 2013 Gender Equality Act strengthened the legislation concerning gender-based violence and included a universal condemnation of all types of gender-based discrimination. Yet, in 2020, Malawi was ranked 116 out of 153 in the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report and 172 out of 189 in UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index. An area of concern regards the high rates of child marriage, with 9 percent of girls already married at age 15 and 42 percent by the age of 18. Alongside these numbers, 31 percent of women report to have given birth by the age 18.

Another aspect potentially influencing gender equality is the prevalence of matrilinear land tenure systems, particularly in the southern and central parts of the country (as depicted in Figure 1). While previous research has shown that land ownership empowers women and suggested that property rights affect decision power over key decisions, fertility preferences, age of marriage etc., less research has been devoted to analysing the effects on women’s empowerment outcomes in a matrilinear kinship setting. Some recent literature however suggests women in matrilinear societies have greater say in household decisions – including financial ones – and are less accepting of, as well as exposed to, domestic violence (Lowes, 2021; Djurfeldt et al., 2018).

Figure 1. Intensity of matrilineal tenure in Malawi.

Notes: The figure plots the geographic distribution of the authors’ matrilineal indicator. They base their definition of matrilineal societies on the ethnic identification of individual respondents. The intensity at the cluster level varies between 0 and 1 representing the share of respondents that identify themselves as belonging to one of the ethnic groups classified as matrilineal.
Source: Perrotta Berlin, Bonnier, Olosgård (2023).

Methodology and Data

For the analysis, the authors make use of geo-coded data on aid projects from the Government of Malawi’s Aid Management Platform (AMP) and match it to household-level data from the Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (DHS). The country of Malawi and the period 2004-2010 were chosen in order to maximize data coverage on aid disbursement. Malawi’s AMP covers 80 percent of all aid entering the country during those years, which gives a much more complete picture compared to only focusing on one specific donor.

To identify causal impact, the authors apply a difference-in-differences specification on survey clusters in proximity to aid projects implemented between 2004 and 2010. Proximity was identified as within a 10-kilometer radius from an aid project. Among those, households interviewed in 2004, i.e., prior to the implementation date of any aid project, were considered the control group, and households interviewed in 2010 formed the treatment group. The underlying assumption of parallel pre-treatment trends was confirmed with the use of earlier DHS surveys. The model specification includes individual-level controls (age, ethnicity, household size, a Muslim dummy, years of education and literacy) and also a geographic fixed-effect based on a grid of coordinates.

The analysis distinguishes between the impact of aid in general, and the additional impact of gender-targeted aid.  Gender-targeted projects are defined as projects that have any of the words woman, girl, bride, maternal, gender, genital or child, in the title, description or activity list. When estimating the effect of gender-targeted aid the authors control for overall aid intensity in the household’s vicinity. The estimated effect should therefore be interpreted as the additional effect from being exposed to a gender-targeted aid project while keeping the general number of aid projects in the area constant.

Figure 2. Map of aid projects and household clusters from 2004 and 2010 survey waves in Malawi.

Notes: The figure plots the geographic distribution of aid projects and of household clusters in the two DHS waves. The colour of the dots reflects whether the project has a gender component or not, while the shape of the household dot reflects the survey wave.
Source: Perrotta Berlin, Bonnier, Olofsgård (2023).

To capture female empowerment, the authors make use of thousands of responses to DHS survey waves from 2004 and 2010. From these responses, the authors construct four different indices. Two of these are modelled on indices used in different contexts by Haushofer and Shapiro (2016) and Jayachandran et al. (2023). The former captures experiences of violence together with men’s and women’s attitudes towards violence, and some measures of decision making and control over household resources. The more recent index by Jayachandran et al. (2023) focuses on female agency and includes questions on women’s participation in decisions on large household purchases and daily expenditures, decisions on family visits, and decisions concerning their own healthcare.

To also capture questions related to sexual and fertility preferences, often regarded as measures of female empowerment, the authors construct two additional indices. The women’s attitudes index is based on responses to questions about whether the respondent is able to refuse sexual intercourse with her husband and ask him to use a condom, age at first marriage, and age at first childbirth, among others. The men’s attitudes index is based on questions about whether the respondent thinks it is justified to use violence to force intercourse, if a woman is justified to refuse intercourse, as well as fertility and child spacing preferences. In addition, all four indices are weighted and combined into an aggregated general index.


Considering all aid projects, the authors find that being exposed to an aid project in the 2004 to 2010 window has a significant positive impact on the agency index, the female attitude index and the combined general index (12, 11 and 31 percent of their respective means). When considering gender-targeted aid, the authors found the exposure to at least one such project to increase the women’s attitude index by 7 percent and the general index by 17 percent of their respective means. The impact is present for both a narrower and a wider exposure area, and quite persistent over time.

When breaking down the analysis for areas with matrilineal versus patrilineal land tenure systems the results diverge. In communities where the share of matrilineal ethnic groups exceeds the mean of 73 percent, the results are largely in line with those in the full sample. In patrilineal communities (< 73 percent matrilineal households), the results are however vastly different. Aid projects in general, and gender-targeted aid in particular, affect negatively the men’s attitudes index. In addition, gender-targeted aid seems to have no additional impact on the other indices.


In the paper underlying this brief, the authors study the effect of foreign aid on female empowerment, a frequent but understudied objective often set by donors. Looking at geo-coded aid projects in Malawi, the authors estimated such projects to positively impact girl’s and women’s empowerment across several indices. This is true for aid in general, and for some indices even more so when considering gender-targeted aid. Some of the positive results disappear or even change sign, though, in patrilineal communities, displaying the significance of pre-existing community norms for the effectiveness of development investments. Aid even generates a backlash when it comes to men’s attitudes towards women’s sexual and fertility preferences in these communities.

The takeaway from the study lies in foreign aid’s potential to empower women in targeted communities. This however hinges on pre-existing norms in recipient communities – something that aid donors should be aware of.

The authors emphasize the need for more research to better understand the role of pre-existing norms in the uptake of aid, to distinguish direct effects from aid from potential spillovers, and to understand what type of aid projects deliver the best outcomes in terms of female empowerment.


Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

Foreign Aid to Ukraine: Lessons from the Literature on Strategic Foreign Aid

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Ukraine is currently receiving substantial inflows of foreign aid from western donors to help the country withstand the Russian aggression. The foreign aid flows partly reflect altruistic motives from the donor side, but also donor’s domestic strategic foreign policy objectives as the war is seen as part of a battle over the future world order. In this brief, I discuss the academic literature that has analysed the existence and consequences of strategic motivations behind aid flows more generally, and draw some preliminary insights for the case of Ukraine.

One of many consequences of the Russian war on Ukraine is that western countries have responded by providing substantial bilateral financial support to Ukraine. This support has taken the form of humanitarian, financial and military aid. As of August 3rd 2022, the US has provided the most support in absolute terms (44,5 billion euro), followed by EU institutions (16,2 billion euro) and the United Kingdom (6,5 billion euro). Relative to GDP, countries in Eastern Europe have however been the most generous, led by Estonia and Latvia (0,9 percent of GDP) and Poland (0,6 percent of GDP) (Antezza et al., 2022). Meanwhile, a discussion on the reconstruction of Ukraine has started, following the massive destruction of physical capital from the Russian aggression. The immense costs of this destruction increase every day, and the reconstruction effort for a future “Ukraine 2.0” will likely require thousands of billions of $US, mainly in the form of foreign aid (Becker at al., 2022).

Against this background, it is important to consider the academic and policy-oriented literature on aid effectiveness, i.e., to what extent aid impacts economic development and social welfare. Aid effectiveness involves many different dimensions such as issues of donor coordination, responsibility for reforms and investment choices of government and people (ownership), how to avoid corruption and so-called “white elephants” (expensive and useless investments), and how to effectively implement evaluation and evidence-based policy choices (e.g. OECD, 2008). In this brief, I will focus my attention on one such dimension, the underlying donor purpose of aid giving, and its implications for the contribution of aid inflows to human welfare in partner countries. More specifically I will discuss strategic aid, aid given primarily for the purpose of donor’s own broader foreign policy agendas. I will discuss what the literature has to say about the existence of such strategic aid, and what it has to say about its implications for aid flows and aid effectiveness. This will be done on basis of the existing literature, including a few of my own contributions. It is important to note that this literature focuses on development aid, defined by the OECD as “Official Development Assistance” (ODA). ODA does not include for instance military aid but is rather defined as official flows that explicitly target economic development and social welfare in the partner country. This literature is thus most relevant when talking about the reconstruction of Ukraine and to some extent the current financial and humanitarian aid given to the country.

Identifying the Existence of Strategic Aid

In the quantitative literature, there are primarily two approaches to measuring the strategic incentives behind aid disbursements. The first approach looks at the distribution of foreign aid across partner countries with different levels of needs, institutional capacity to absorb aid inflows, commercial potential, historical ties to donors, and strategic importance. If aid was based only on altruistic motives we would expect aid allocation to strongly favour partner countries with low human development (measured by, e.g., GDP per capita levels, poverty headcount ratios and child mortality) and the capacity to turn aid inflows into social welfare (measured by e.g., indices of macroeconomic policies, democracy scores and corruption indicators). While the empirical literature suggests this is partly true, although more so for some donors than others, it is far from the whole picture. Many donors tend to favour former colonies or countries of commercial interest, observed by flows of trade and foreign direct investments (e.g., Neumayer, 2003; Berthelemy and Tichit, 2004). The same is true for strategic interests, although their importance varies substantially across donors (more so for the US and less for the Scandinavian countries, for instance). This is also true across a broad set of proxies for strategic relevance, all trying to capture foreign policy alliances or foreign policy importance, such as arms imports (Hess, 1989; Maizels, and Nissanke, 1984), arms expenditures (Schraeder et al., 1998), the correlation of voting records in the UN General Assembly (Alesina and Dollar, 2000), and dummies for Israel and Egypt (capturing the significance of the Israel-Palestine peace process).

In Frot, Olofsgård and Perrotta Berlin (2014), we take a closer look at the Central and Eastern Europe (CEEC) countries and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in the early years of their transition towards market economies. As these countries opened up a substantial amount of western aid became available, but the allocation of aid across countries varied substantially, as did needs, commercial potential and strategic significance to major donors. We argue that these motivations may have also played a different role at different times. In particular, there is a strategic advantage of early market access if aid flows are driven by commercial interests, suggesting that trade and investment relationships may play a more prominent role for aid allocation early on and less so as private partnerships have been [increasingly] established. Similarly, some strategic considerations were particularly salient early on, such as supporting nuclear disarmament and building a bulwark in Eastern Europe against the perceived remaining military threat of Russia. When disaggregating the data over time, we do indeed find that commercial interests played a much more prominent role in the first half of the 1990’s than in later years. Similarly, we find that countries with nuclear arms and countries located geographically closer to Brussels benefit particularly during these early years. As time went by, commercial interests became less important, needs variables gained more traction, and aid seems to rather have been used to reward countries undergoing deeper democratic reforms (Frot, Olofsgård and Perrotta Berlin, 2014).

The second approach is to focus on how aid flows are generally affected by changes to the strategic importance of a partner country, or partner countries, over time. In Boschini and Olofsgård (2007) we estimate the role of the intensity of the Cold War on aggregate levels of foreign aid from western donors. It is commonly argued that foreign aid was (partially) used as an instrument to gain political loyalty from leaders in the developing world during the Cold War and that the substantial drop in aggregate aid levels witnessed in the 1990’s can be explained by the disappearance of an important strategic motive behind foreign aid altogether (e.g. Lancaster, 2008). This had however not been tested in quantitative terms, and thus we collected data on military spending in the Eastern bloc to serve as a proxy for the intensity of the Cold War. We found that there was a positive correlation between military expenditures in the east and western development assistance during the period 1970-1990. After the Cold War, military expenditures in the east have no correlation with western development assistance. This suggests that development assistance was used as a complement to recipient’s domestic military spending in producing strategic security within donor countries. Once the Cold War ended though, the immediate need for such investments in security and loyalty abroad largely disappeared, ending the connection between military spending in the east and western development assistance and causing overall aid levels to drop. Kilby and Fleck (2010) find a similar but reverse effect of the war on terror following the 9/11 attack on the US in 2001. Overall aid flows increased, and the allocation across countries became biased in favour of countries of greater importance to the US in the War on Terror.

Another strand of literature has focused on what happens to aid inflows when a country becomes a temporary member of the UN Security Council (UNSC). This literature looks primarily at the impact on aid from multilateral aid agencies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The rationale for the analysis is the notion that (western) permanent members on the UNSC have strategic interest in showcasing broad majority support for their resolutions at the council. This gives them an incentive to “buy support” from temporary members through influence over multilateral aid agencies.

Accordingly, Dreher et al. (2009a) find that partner countries receive a greater number of aid projects from the World Bank during years of UNSC membership than during the years before and after membership. Similarly, Dreher et al. (2009b) find that participation in IMF programs increases during membership years, and that agreements have fewer policy conditions.

In a recent paper (Berlin Perrotta, Desai and Olofsgård, 2022) we look at temporary UNSC membership and World Bank aid. Following the previous literature, we analyse whether temporary UNSC members receive more aid projects, but with a larger data set. Providing originality, we also test whether partner country governments are given more leeway to allocate aid projects regionally for political purposes during the years of UNSC membership. The argument is that donors can give partner country governments benefits not only in terms of the amount of aid, but also the extent to which they are free to spend resources based on political interests rather than needs. More specifically, we test whether birth region of political leaders, and regions dominated by co-ethnics of the political leader in question, receive a particular boost to aid inflows during membership years. We select these indicators of domestic political importance based on an existing literature which suggests governments at times favour such regions for public spending (e.g., Bommer et al., 2022; Briggs, 2014).

Consistent with earlier findings, we confirm that temporary members of the UNSC receive a greater number of World Bank projects during membership years than what they would otherwise receive.  We also find partial support for the hypothesis that partner country governments have greater leeway to redirect projects to politically favoured regions. More specifically, co-ethnic regions get a boost in the number of projects and total aid inflows during membership years, whereas we find no similar impact in the leader’s home regions. More detailed analysis reveals that our results are driven by countries that persistently vote in line with the US in the committee, further supporting the interpretation that this reflects a trade of favours (Berlin Perrotta, Desai and Olofsgård, 2022).

The Consequences of Strategic Aid

But does the underlying motive behind foreign aid matter? Development aid can of course benefit social and economic welfare in a partner country if invested in activities with positive social rates of return (e.g., schools, health care and infrastructure), irrespective of any underlying motivation. A strategic motivation can even be beneficial if it means that partner countries receive more aid than they would do in its absence. Consider the drop in total western aid budgets after the end of the Cold War, and the increase after the start of the War on Terror, as previously mentioned. Similarly, often referred to as the first example of foreign aid, the Marshall Plan to help rebuild Europe after the 2nd World War, was not only motivated by altruistic reasons. It was explicitly motivated by the need to maintain US national security and safeguard US access to European markets. Yet, the plan is hailed as a success, vital to the reconstruction of Europe after the war. It is also evident that popular support for aid to Ukraine in western donor countries partly depend on the conception of a threat to Europe and the free world, facilitating/enabling governments to be generous in their support.

There are however also examples of where strategic considerations have motivated aid with very limited or even negative impact on economic development and social welfare in partner countries. In particular during the Cold War, in order to gain loyalty in the ideological battle between the superpowers, western aid often went to highly corrupt regimes with low absorptive capacity (e.g., Easterly, 2006). A frequently mentioned example is the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko. The US provided the country with more than a billion $US in development aid between 1962 and 1991, under a kleptocratic regime that impoverished the country (see here). This without doubt helped the regime stay in power, and the aid was thus not just a waste of resources but directly counterproductive.

Another argument at the global level is that there always exists an opportunity cost in the sense that strategic objectives reallocate limited aid resources from where the need is the greatest, to countries more politically salient. Burnside and Dollar (2000) run a simulation based on their empirical findings, changing the actual (partially donor interest based) allocation of aid across partner countries to an allocation based on need and absorptive capacity (which they associate with macroeconomic policies). Within their sample, they estimate such a reallocation to increase per capita growth by 0,2 to 0,3 percentage points, from a mean growth rate of 1,1 percent. Such calculations are of course rough estimates, yet they give a ballpark figure.

In the case of Ukraine however, the first of these arguments carry little weight. Aid is not sustaining a dysfunctional government with little interest in its own population, rather the opposite is true. On the other hand, the argument of allocative efficiency may carry some weight at a global scale. The needs and the human suffering in Ukraine are immense but unfortunately there are other places in the world with such extensive suffering (Ethiopia, Yemen, and Somalia to mention a few examples). There is thus concern within the donor community that the attention to Ukraine will negatively affect resources and attention to other places in need of support, in particular since the war has externalities in the form of increased food and energy prices in low-income countries. Such argument however relies on the assumption of crowding out resources from a budget of given size. While hard to prove, it is probably safe to say that the strategic interest in Ukraine has in fact increased the total budget available. As for now, it is therefore not entirely clear to what extent resources to other nations in need will be crowded out. Yet, the UN’s appeal for Ukraine is more than 80 percent funded for this year, whereas the UN’s response plan for Afghanistan is around 38 percent funded, Yemen’s is around 27 percent funded and Sudan’s is around 20 percent funded (see here).

A third lesson from the literature concern the (lack off) strings attached when aid is strategic. Continuous aid to the corrupt and violent regime of Mobutu Sese Seke in DRC is an extreme example of this phenomenon. But, as previously discussed, it’s also been shown that temporary UNSC membership comes with fewer conditions in IMF agreements (Dreher et al., 2009b) and with more leeway to partner governments to allocate inflows for domestic political purposes (Berlin Perrotta, Desai and Olofsgård, 2022), which has been shown to have efficiency consequences. Dreher et al. (2018) use a typical panel growth regression setting to compare the contribution of aid to economic growth during the period around UNSC membership to that same contribution in other time periods and for comparable countries that have never been temporary UNSC members. They find that aid is less effective during UNSC membership years, which they allude to the strategic use of aid under these special circumstances. The point is that donor oversight and monitoring may be weaker when aid is strategically motivated. Alignment of the partner country government to the goals of economic development and social welfare, therefore, becomes even more important. At a time of massive aid inflows in a setting with less than perfect institutional control and a history of corruption, as is the case of Ukraine, this may have a detrimental impact on aid effectiveness unless proper safeguards are in place.


Foreign aid from western donors to Ukraine is partly motivated on altruistic grounds but it also reflects wider foreign policy objectives of the donors. The Russian aggression is perceived not only as an attack on Ukraine but as an attack on the existing rules-based world order and as part of a broader conflict between liberal democracy and authoritarianism. More donor-oriented motives behind foreign aid are referred to as strategic in the academic literature, and in this brief, I have given a short and selective introduction to that literature. In terms of foreign aid to Ukraine, the good news is that the combination of altruistic and strategic motives can generate greater aid flows and that, irrespective of the underlying motivation, such inflows can be effective if the priorities of donors and partner country government align around initiatives spurring economic development and social welfare. A potential concern is that the literature suggests that donors are more accepting of abuse of such funds, so the need to evade corruption and mismanagement may become particularly acute. On a global scale, there is also a concern about crowding out of aid resources away from other places in need when attention is focused on Ukraine. The severity of such crowding out will be a function of the extent of additionality of support to Ukraine, to the existing total aid budgets. It is thus important that governments in donor countries manage to maintain support for Ukraine, without forgetting about the needs elsewhere. With tough economic times ahead in Europe, this may unfortunately become a challenge.


Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

Financial Aid to Ukrainian Reconstruction: Loans Versus Grants

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This brief provides an overview of the discussion on the relative merits of grants and loans in the literature on foreign aid, including a short section on debt relief initiatives. These claims are then tested against the context of Ukrainian post-war reconstruction, and it is argued that the case for providing grants is very strong. This argument is based on the magnitude of the investments needed, the need to create a long-run sustainable economy, the road towards a future EU membership, and the global value of a democratic and prosperous Ukraine as a bulwark against autocratic forces.


One topic in the discussion on the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine is to what extent foreign support should come as loans or grants. The case at hand regards reconstruction in the aftermath of a military invasion by an aggressive neighbor. Therefore, Ukrainian reconstruction is sometimes compared to the Marshall Plan, the US package to help rebuild Europe after World War II. But this choice is also part of the more general discussion on foreign aid, comparing concessional loans (loans with lower interest rates than the market rate) with grants (financial transfers with no expectation of repayment), not least since many aid receiving countries have been highly indebted. What are then the arguments in favor of one or the other in the foreign aid literature? And how should we think about this in the context of the Ukraine crisis?

The Case for Loans

From a donor perspective, loans could be preferred from a purely financial viewpoint, as long as they are repaid. This must be put into the perspective of the purpose of foreign aid, though. If the purpose is to increase the welfare of the poor, and if loans cause macroeconomic imbalances that eventually lead to a debt crisis, using loans for aid will defeat its purpose. It is thus important, even from a donor perspective, to differentiate between the pure financial costs and the effectiveness and efficiency of foreign aid in relation to the stated goals. Yet, the paradigm on which development banks such as the World Bank motivate their strategy is that, even from an effectiveness perspective, loans may outperform grants. In their model, the bank has a broad portfolio of investments across multiple countries prioritized in order of the social rate of return. By lending out money, the bank can invest the returns from the most prioritized project into the second-most prioritized project, most likely in a different country. If the money instead had been given as a grant, the best possible outcome is that the receiving country can now invest the returns in the next best project within that country. This argument thus relies on the assumption that development banks can continually identify the most promising recipients among their wide portfolio of alternatives.

It has also been argued that grants may reduce incentives to raise tax revenues, and encourage government consumption over investments, as there is no need to generate net revenues to repay the debt (e.g., Clements et al. 2004; Djankov et al. 2004). From a donor perspective, it can also be argued that the monitoring of grants may be weaker because donors have no direct financial interest in the success of a project if it is financed by a grant. The disciplining effect of loans, though, relies on the absence of moral hazard problems. If receiving governments expect debt to be forgiven anyway when it is perceived as unsustainable and counterproductive to the country’s development, loans may be no better.

Based on arguments such as those above, part of the literature suggests that concessional loans are more likely than grants to promote growth in recipient countries, at least in good institutional environments. Cordella and Ulku (2007) look into this in detail and develop a model linking the degree of concessionality, for a given level of foreign aid (i.e. the extent to which finances are on preferential terms compared to market rates), to the receiving country’s economic growth rate, in a world where default is possible. Concessionality varies from 100 percent grants to 100 percent loans on market terms. The model suggests that a country with better policies and stronger institutions has a higher absorptive capacity for investments, meaning it can handle a lower level of concessionality (i.e., more loans, fewer grants) without going into default. They also argue that the immediate incentives for default on a loan are higher for a poorer and more indebted country as the cost of servicing the loan is higher. This would motivate relatively more grants and fewer loans to countries that are poor and highly indebted. Taking this to the data, they find in consistence with their theory that for any given level of total assistance, the impact on growth is increasing with the degree of concessionality for poor countries with weak policy and institutional environments, whereas this matters less for richer countries with better policies and stronger institutions. Looking at the level of indebtedness, the results are inconclusive.

The Case for Grants

The arguments above generally favor loans over grants, but it is of course crucial to also consider the risks and consequences of excessive debt burdens and sovereign default. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the potential consequences of shouldering a country with an excessive debt burden comes from Germany after the end of World War I. The economic struggles and sense of humiliation that followed have been argued to have contributed to German grievances leading up to World War II. Less dramatic but still with significant implications is the “lost decade” affecting Latin American middle-income countries in the 1980s. The combination of cheap credit from oil-exporting countries and the sudden dramatic increase of international interest rates following US policies in the early 1980s resulted in unsustainable levels of commercial loans. This crisis led to a US initiative, the Brady Plan, by which bank loans were consolidated and partially backed by the US government.

Excessive lending is often the result of distorted incentives. Within development banks, there are widely recognized internal incentives to get projects “through the door” (e.g., Briggs 2021). This “aid pushing” happens for both grants and loans, but the consequences can be more detrimental for loans if this leads to unsustainable debt levels. Similarly, there is evidence of defensive lending, where countries receive loans simply to be able to repay previous loans. Birdsall et al. (2003) find that donors lent more to African countries with bad policies if they had a large existing debt. On the other side, recipient country governments with short-term horizons and in environments with weak institutional checks and balances do not necessarily internalize the full costs of excessive lending. Due to these incentives on both sides, loans too often reach unsustainable levels, with debt to GDP ratios and debt to net export revenues becoming increasingly alarming.

With increased recognition of the costs of development of unsustainable levels of official lending, debt negotiations targeting highly indebted low-income countries have become common. These negotiations have often taken place through the Paris Club (a group of 22 high or upper-middle income creditor nations, including Russia) or through the HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Countries) initiative (e.g. Birdsall et al. 2002). These debt reduction agreements have been continuously renegotiated, offering more and more generous conditions including debt forgiveness, rescheduling of existing loan terms, and more focus on grants in the portfolios of official financing.

Of particular relevance for this note, though, are the discussions around these initiatives that illustrate the different arguments made in favor of, or against, debt relief. As brought up in Birdsall et al. (2002), critique against the HIPC initiatives came from both sides. On the one hand, some argued that debt forgiveness was just more aid “down the rathole”, encouraging irresponsible policies by receiving governments (e.g. Easterly 2001), and fuelled by commercially motivated bilateral donors and multilateral institutions with misguided bureaucratic incentives. In order for aid to be effective, much more stringent conditionality was needed, and if that didn’t work, stricter selectivity in terms of which governments to partner with. On the other hand, others argued that the initiatives did not go far enough (e.g. Sachs, 2002). The economic arguments largely relied on concepts of a poverty trap, impossible to escape under conditions of a heavy debt burden requiring scarce foreign exchange to be used for debt service and discouraging investments. These countries were perceived as particularly vulnerable to adverse economic shocks, and as such, in need of insurance mechanisms that wouldn’t burden them with claims hampering their ability to prosper looking forward. But there was also a moral dimension, with blame focused on the creditor side, arguing that citizens of poor nations could not be burdened by debt issued for political reasons by creditors looking the other way when receiving rulers used proceeds for personal purposes.

Financing Post-war Recovery

The discussion above relates to foreign aid in general. The situation of financing post-war recovery is more specific, but past examples may give some points of reference. It should be noted, however, that every situation is unique in terms of the level of destruction, preconditions for a quick recovery, the political ramifications, and the risk of a resurgence of violence. And all these factors matter for the ability and willingness of foreign actors to step in and help.

An often-made reference in conjunction with Ukrainian recovery plans is the Marshall Plan, also known as the European Recovery Plan following World War II. Through this plan, financed by the US, initially 16 countries in Europe were getting “help to self-help” at an amount corresponding to roughly 10,5 percent of the countries’ GDP at the time (roughly about $13 billion, or $138 billion in 2019 dollars). The resources were spent differently across receiving countries, depending on the level of physical destruction. Importantly, grants accounted for as much as 90% of the total resources (Becker et al. 2022). More generally, grants usually account for a more significant share of aid flows when it comes to post-war reconstruction. This is natural, as a large share of the funding typically goes to humanitarian relief, and war-torn countries tend to be saddled with debt and a low capacity to raise domestic revenues in the short to medium term given the destruction of the war.

The common reference to the Marshall Plan in the context of Ukraine is probably partly geographically motivated: it is another war in Europe. But there are also other reasons, such as the direct unprovoked aggression by one of the world’s leading military powers, and the potential ramifications for world peace and the existing world order. The Marshall plan was motivated by the desire to avoid the mistakes from the peace agreements after WWI, and to help create a unified western Europe as a bulwark against further communist expansion from the Soviet Union. There are similar arguments to be made for the case of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Implications for Ukraine Reconstruction

According to World Bank statistics, the total external debt stock of Ukraine in 2020 was $130 billion in current values, or 81,4 % of Gross National Income (GNI). This is already quite high, but the war has of course completely upended the situation and the IMF argued that Ukraine was facing debt sustainability issues already by the beginning of March 2022. Public finances are in the short run facing double pressure from a steep fall in revenues as economic activity drops and the ability to raise taxes is eroded, and an increase in expenditures on defence and humanitarian relief. Looking ahead, estimates of the Ukrainian costs of the war range between $440 and $1 000 billion by end of March 2022, but there is of course high uncertainty, and the bill is increasing for each day that the war goes on (Becker et al. 2022). This could be compared to the 2021 estimate of Ukraine’s GDP at around $165 billion. Even in the most optimistic scenarios, the rebuilding effort will be very costly, and will require massive amounts of foreign capital.

The sheer amount of effort needed in itself speaks to the need for grant financing. Rebuilding will require both public and private capital, and attracting new investments will necessitate an economic environment that is perceived as stable, dynamic, and conducive to long-term growth. As in the discussion on debt forgiveness for low-income countries above, such new investments are unlikely to materialize if the debt situation is deemed unsustainable. Furthermore, arguments in favor of loans over grants on grounds of fostering domestic macroeconomic responsibility and reducing moral hazard problems, fall flat when a country is invaded by an aggressive neighbor. Ukraine has had its share of bad politics, but the current situation is not caused by poor policies, lack of reform, or irresponsible lending under the assumption of future bailouts.

It should also be noted that both the Ukrainian government and representatives of the European Union (EU) have emphasized the long-term ambition that Ukraine should join the EU. This will not be possible, however, unless the country’s economy is in order, including a sustainable debt level, according to EU requirements for all joining members. Were Ukraine to shoulder excessive levels of debt at this moment it would thus jeopardize this ambition. And not least, Ukraine is fighting for its survival, but the war is also part of a wider emerging struggle between democratic and authoritarian forces over the future world order. The result of the war is of great significance for all democratic countries, though it’s the people of Ukraine that are facing the immediate horrific consequences. It is thus in our common interest to rebuild a prosperous and democratic Ukraine also as a bulwark against further authoritarian ambitions to change the existing world order. A Ukraine saddled with an unsustainable debt burden runs completely counter to the interests of the democratic world.

The Marshall Plan was successful in its goal “to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist”. This allowed for economic and political cooperation to take roots in western Europe, also contributing to political stability and prosperity. This cooperation expanded further east after 1989 with the inclusion of new member states into the European Union, largely solidifying a move towards market-based democracy in the region (despite some recent setbacks, primarily in Hungary). Let us build on these successful examples. The current situation offers an opportunity to bring an additional 44 million people into the European umbrella of peaceful cooperation in the near future. This ambition would become much more difficult, though, if Ukraine was saddled with an excessive debt burden.


Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

Financing for Development: Two Years after Addis

20170611 Development Day

At the Third International Conference on Development Finance in Addis Ababa on July 13—16, 2015, the world committed itself to an action agenda to raise resources to realize the 2030 sustainable development goals. The question is how much progress the world has achieved two years down the road, when the initial enthusiasm and commitments are no longer in the immediate spotlight. This policy brief reports on the discussion from a conference on this topic, Development Day 2017, held in Stockholm on May 31.

The year 2015 has been lauded as a landmark year for sustainable development. As many as three major global agreements were negotiated and signed: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; the Paris Agreement on Climate Change; and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA) on Financing for Development. The latter may be less known, but is essential to the ambition to achieve the first since it concerns how to finance the necessary investments to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The AAAA identified seven action areas spanning both the public and the private sectors, and involving both domestic revenues and international transfers (domestic public resources, domestic and international private business and finance, development cooperation, trade, debt and debt sustainability, systemic issues and science, technology and innovation). This event focused primarily on international commercial private capital flows, and indirectly on development cooperation as a facilitator and catalyst for such private transfers.

Combining good business and good development

A major theme of the conference was combining good business with good development. Should private companies also take responsibility for environmental and social sustainability, or is the “only business of business to do business”? If firms do engage in sustainability investments, does it eat into profits or does it rather create a competitive edge? Reading business journals, it is easy to get the impression that there is a win-win situation. This picture is, however, based on rather limited information and the relationship is fraught with methodological challenges as both profitability and sustainability investments may be driven by other factors (such as competent leadership), and firms performing well may have the capacity and feel the obligation to invest part of their surplus into corporate social responsibility (CSR). Hence, there may be a question of reverse causality.

At the conference, new research was presented using data on investments in low and middle-income countries from the International Finance Corporation that includes both measures of financial rates of returns and subjective ratings of environment, social and governance (ESG) performance. Simple correlations suggested a significant positive relationship, or a win-win situation. However, once care was taken to identify a causal effect from ESG on profits, the results became insignificant. That is, the causal effect of ESG investments on profits seemed neither positive nor negative. However, when looking at broader measures of private sector development, the results suggest that both profits and ESG investments have a positive impact on sector development. This implies that there are good reasons for the public sector to encourage ESG activities even beyond the direct sustainability benefits through for instance public-private partnerships but also regulations that encourage good behavior.

How should results like these be interpreted? The presentation spurred an interesting debate on what are reasonable expectations and whether “the glass is half full or half empty”. It was emphasized that systematically beating the market should not really be expected from any group of investments, so a half-full interpretation seems more plausible.

This debate also came up in a panel discussion on institutional investments in developing countries, and where the growing success of green bonds was presented. Though still small in absolute size (1-2% of the bonds coming to the market are green bonds), there has been an impressive growth in the last 3-4 years. Currently, the Swedish bank SEB is cooperating with the German government in developing a green-bond market in emerging markets. Some of the lessons emphasized from the green-bond market were the importance of being clear towards investors about the motivation and the value proposition, to package the information in a credible way emphasizing independent verification, and to continuously monitor and give feedback to investors.

From the institutional investor side, it was mentioned how important it is to tell investors a compelling story. This may be easier with regards to environmental sustainability relative to social sustainability, both in terms of conveying the urgency and in developing indicators that can be monitored and communicated. It was also argued that even though there are initiatives out there, emphasizing how sustainable investments can be competitive in terms of profitability (such as green bonds), it would also help to change the relative price on the other end of the spectrum, i.e. through regulations, taxes or other instruments that can make investments with particularly negative externalities less profitable.

Finally, an overarching theme of the discussion was the challenge to have institutional investments reach the places with the most needs, i.e. the fragile and least developed countries. If this is to happen, pension funds and insurance companies have to be allowed to take on more risks, and it would be essential to reduce the corporate risk in public-private partnerships (more on this below).

In a second panel discussion, different Swedish corporate initiatives, emphasizing sustainability, were showcased. For example, the Swedish steel producers’ association, Jernkontoret, showcased the Swedish steel industry’s vision 2050 with the target of domestically based steel production using hydrogen and with zero CO2 emissions. Another example is the Sweden Textile Water Initiative, launched in 2010 by major Swedish textile and leather brands together with the Stockholm International Water Institute, has created the first guidelines for sustainable water and wastewater management in supply chains. Currently working with 277 suppliers in 5 countries, the initiative features clear win-win situations and is now self-sustaining and in the process of going private.

Skandia, a major Swedish insurance company, emphasized the business costs of socially unsustainable situations with examples from the costs in Sweden of sick leave, and the costs for protection and security for Swedish retailers and mall developers. Positive preventive work focusing on rehabilitation and the development of blossoming and inclusive neighborhoods were featured. These examples showcased how the SDGs are feeding into the thinking and planning of the private sector in Sweden, and how important it is to identify the business cases for thinking about sustainability in order for this to become mainstream.

However, the case for private capital to be the panacea for reaching the SDGs is by no means obvious. The non-governmental organization Diakonia pointed out that for every dollar flowing into a developing country, more than two dollars are lost. The biggest loss is coming from illicit financial flows, and within this category, tax evasion is the biggest problem. While the private sector is key to development, the main contributions this sector can do for development is to pay taxes where they are due, abide by international standards, and be transparent and accountable to the citizens and governments in the countries where they operate.

Swedwatch, used two examples from Borneo and what is now South Sudan, to illustrate how investors at times turn a blind eye towards human rights and environmental abuses by private multi-national companies. Transparency, due diligence in evaluating human rights risks prior to investment decisions, and a readiness to push for compensation and remedy if abuse is still unearthed were pointed out as key components to avoid this type of malpractice.

Development cooperation as facilitator for private flows

The second main theme of the day dealt with the ability to use development cooperation as a catalyst for private investments.

Swedfund, the Swedish government’s development financier, emphasized the need to move fast and find a business model in which one dollar spent becomes ten dollars on the ground. Based on a business model around three pillars (societal impact, sustainability and financial viability) Swedfund focus on areas with relatively high risk and where private capital are in short supply, with the hope to foster job creation, inclusive growth and poverty reduction.

Sida, the Swedish main aid agency, showcased their guarantee instruments. Through partnerships with bigger actors such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank group as well as local banks in developing countries, Sida can shoulder part of the default risks involved when trying to reach more high-risk investors (such as small and medium sized enterprises) with great potential development impact. In this way, one dollar from the public aid budget can lure a multiple of dollars in private capital towards sustainable development.

The OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) emphasized that governments generally lack a policy for how to deliver official development assistance (ODA) in a sustainable way and a strategy for how to enable capital flows from the private sector. A DAC initiative to better track all financial flows going towards development, beyond just ODA, was presented.

From the Center for Global Development, the case for using public resources to facilitate private sector insurance mechanisms against human disasters was presented (concessional insurance). Benefits emphasized from explicit insurance contracts included faster and better-coordinated payouts, more certainty that compensation will come, incentives to invest in disaster prevention (to reduce premiums) and involvement of commercial insurance professionals.

Importantly, though, it was emphasized that it is crucial that aid money are truly complementary in the sense that they crowd in private investments that otherwise would not have taken place (and not end up subsidizing private investors in donor countries). It was also emphasized that donors must not forget about the focus on the poorest and people in fragile states.

In some environments donors must shoulder 100% of the risk to lure private capital. In those cases alternatives must be considered. Sida emphasized the importance to match financial instruments with the appropriate context, i.e. there is a need to identify where different instruments should be used. For instance, big institutional investors need investments that are manageable, predictable, and of a reasonable size. Aid agencies can help through subsidized risk management, but also by helping build strong institutions in partner countries that can work as counterparts, and encourage public-private collaborations to package investment deals and reduce information asymmetries.

Where are we now?

Turns out that this is not a simple question to answer. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs presented the Swedish government’s priority areas – strengthening the implementation of SDG 5, 8, 14 and 16 (all goals can be found here: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300) – and reported from a recent follow-up meeting at the UN.

In principle the Addis Agenda identifies action areas and connects areas and actors, which makes it possible for systematic follow-ups, and an inter-agency task force produces an annual report of the general state of the implementation of the Addis Agenda. The Swedish government has produced a report on the implementation of the AAAA covering all seven action-areas with examples of progress. This initiative was commended at the UN meetings, and together with the private sector engagement, as showcased during the 2017 Development Day, it paints a rather positive picture of progress and engagement in Sweden.

However, globally, there are many uncertainties and challenges. The Center for Global Development reported on the budget proposal of the US president, which among other things includes a 32% cut to topline funding for the Department of State and Foreign Operations. There are also plans to eliminate the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and to zero out US food assistance. On the other hand, in this fiscal year, the US Congress (controlled by the Republicans) increased the amount going into foreign aid compared to what previous president Obama suggested. What will eventually come out of the current president’s budget proposal for the coming fiscal year is thus highly unclear.

Participants at the conference

  • Rami AbdelRahman, Sweden Textile Water Initiative
  • Frida Arounsavath, Swedwatch
  • Owen Barder, Center for Global Development
  • Eva Blixt, Jernkontoret
  • Magnus Cedergren, Sida
  • Penny Davies, Diakonia
  • Raj Desai, Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution
  • Ulf Erlandsson, Fourth Swedish National Pension Fund (AP4)
  • Måns Fellesson, Ministry for Foreign Affairs
  • Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, OECD-DAC
  • Anna Hammargren, Ministry for Foreign Affairs
  • John Hurley, Center for Global Development
  • Lena Hök, Skandia
  • Måns Nilsson, Stockholm Environmental Institute
  • Mats Olausson, SEB
  • Anders Olofsgård, SITE
  • Anna Ryott, Swedfund
  • Elina Scheja, Sida

The Aid Effectiveness Literature: Is It Over Yet?

Author: Maria Perrotta Berlin, SITE.

After several decades of studies, the academic community still does not have an answer to whether foreign aid affects growth, and in which direction. Part of the reason for such an outcome may lie in a wide variety of models, techniques and data used. However, the main reason is probably that the broad spectrum of effects is difficult to disentangle when looking at the question at an aggregated level.

Development Policy After the Millennium Development Goals: Where Do We Go From Here?

20130916 Development Policy After the Millennium FREE Network Policy Brief Image 01

This policy brief reports on a discussion of the Post-2015 Development Agenda held during a full day conference at the Stockholm School of Economics on August 23, 2013. The event was organized jointly by the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE) and the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and was the third installment of Development Day, a yearly development policy conference. The Millennium Development Goals established in year 2000 has been an essential concept for global and national efforts to promote economic, social and human development. Highlighting income poverty, health, education, gender equality and environmental sustainability, the targets have focused global efforts on a set of quantifiable and comparable measures of progress. The question for the development community as these goals reach their endpoint is how to build a successful agenda for the future beyond year 2015. To discuss this challenging question, the conference brought together a distinguished and experienced group of policy oriented scholars and practitioners from governments, International Financial Institutions, the business community as well as NGOs.

In September 2000, world leaders adopted the United Nations Millennium Declaration, committing their nations to a global partnership to reduce extreme poverty. The declaration defined eight time-bound targets expiring in 2015, the so-called Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These goals specify areas of focus; eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and empower women, reduce child mortality rates, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensure environmental sustainability, and develop a global partnership for development. They also set explicit targets such as halving the number of people living on less than US$ 1.25 a day and reducing maternal mortality by three quarters from 1990 to 2015. Some commendable success has indeed been realized; already in 2010 the worldwide goal to reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than US$ 1.25 a day was achieved. However, much less progress has been seen in some other areas, including maternal health, and there are countries for which none of the goals are expected to be achieved by 2015. Nevertheless, the use of quantifiable, comparable and time-bound targets to create awareness and direct political resources is generally regarded as a success. The question for the development community as 2015 quickly approaches is thus how to build a successful post-2015 development agenda that builds on what has worked but also incorporates areas identified as missing.

The process to establish a new agenda of course raises many questions and reveals some of the trade-offs involved. There seems to be a consensus that the Millennium Declaration and the MDG framework should serve as a starting point, but there are many details to pin down. For instance, there are important challenges not directly mentioned in the original eight goals such as political conflict, rising inequality and youth unemployment. Many also argue that environmental sustainability, though included, may deserve a more prominent role in the future agenda. On the other hand, loading the Agenda with more and more goals may also dilute the global effort across too many areas, and some scholars argue that the whole idea with specific goals is counterproductive based on an organic view of development ill-suited for social engineering from above. To protect credibility, it is also important to get a sense of what is realistic to aim for, and what responsibility to ascribe to the already developed world. Moreover, even if a consensus can be reached with regards to the goals, opinions on how to best reach those goals will most definitely vary widely.

To get the process towards a new agenda started, the UN Secretary General has launched several initiatives including task teams, special advisors and consultations, but also a High-level Panel of Eminent Persons co-chaired by the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia, and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; also including as its member Gunilla Carlsson, Swedish Minister for Development Cooperation. The panel, led by executive secretary and lead author Homi Kharas, submitted a report to the Secretary General on May 31. The program of Development Day 2013 started with a presentation of the report by Dr. Kharas, and remarks from Minister Carlsson. This was followed by an academic session corroborating projections of the report and outlining its limitations, and two panel discussions on sustainable development and Sweden’s potential as a leader in this process. Below follows a short representation of the main arguments and debates of the day.

A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development

Homi Kharas, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director at the Brookings Institution, presented the main messages contained in the report in the first session. An analysis of the situation since year 2000 shows many positive signs such as high global economic growth; increased international connectedness; a reduction in global inequality; and a substantial drop in absolute poverty rates. However, there are also many challenges ahead; rapid population growth, political conflicts, and the fact that the majority of the extremely poor live in conflict zones, increasing urbanization, a deteriorating environment and dwindling aid flows. This, in turn, leads Dr. Kharas to conclude that ‘business as usual’ is no longer feasible, and a new framework replacing the MDGs is needed.

The report seeks to address these issues and is conceived to serve as a set of guidelines, new goals and targets for the UN Secretary General and for the UN member states for the post-2015 period. At the core of the report is a bold aspiration to eradicate absolute poverty by 2030 through a unified framework of sustainable economic growth, increased social equality and environmental sustainability, and a new global partnership paradigm. This universal agenda, in turn, is proposed to be reached via five paradigm shifts to the status quo, (i) universal inclusion and equality, (ii) environmentally sustainable development, (iii) a transformation of national economies for sustainable growth, (iv) peace and effective, transparent public institutions, and (v) a new and more inclusive global partnership. In the report these broad and major shifts are further delineated across 12 illustrative targets, which, if met, will directly affect more than two billion people across the world and would require about $30 trillion spent by the governments worldwide.

Dr, Kharas emphasized that the report was prepared in cooperation with 5000 civil organizations, 250 large international corporations, and thematic, regional and country consultations all over the world, with another one million people taking part in an online questionnaire. He stressed that this kind of broad cooperation and consultation is needed to implement the goals set by the report and especially to operationalize these goals at the level of each of the member states.

Gunilla Carlsson, Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation and a member of the UN High-Level Panel, continued the discussion and commended the members of the Panel on the impressive amount of work put in the report. She also emphasized the universal character of the agenda presented in the report, largely applicable both to developing and developed countries.

Carlsson stressed what she identified as the core values of the report; eradication of extreme poverty, prevention of violence and conflict, and inclusive peace. She further underlined the importance of local and global partnerships across governments, business communities and civil society. Broader public-private partnerships are essential both for fostering innovation in development work and to guarantee sufficient amounts of financing. The exact design of such a framework, however, is still an open question, but she hopes Sweden can serve as a leading example.

Both Homi Kharas and Gunilla Carlsson also showed great optimism when asked about the potential to implement the substantive initiatives by 2030. They stressed that not only does the world at present have more resources and more aid flows than it ever have, but the international community, including both public and private actors, is also showing more willingness to help the developing countries integrate successful development models than ever before.

Comments and Reflections

Martin Ravallion, Edmond D. Villani Professor of Economics at Georgetown University, started the commentary and reflection session. He showed how there is a strong current trend of between-country convergence of inequality rates (more equal countries becoming more unequal, while more unequal countries are becoming more equal) and declining poverty rate. The latter decline is to a considerable extent driven by Chinese economic growth, but this is far from the only source. He also underlined that the rate of poverty reduction has increased since the adoption of the MDGs in the 2000s, but said it was too early to judge the success or failure of the MDGs on these grounds.

Based on current trends, Ravallion also presented some estimates of the possibility to achieve the core objective of the report, eradication of absolute poverty by 2030. From a broad range of alternatives, the best case scenario, based on 3% annual growth rates of the world economy, absence of major economic crises and at least not decreasing participation of the poor in the benefits of growth, estimated a fall in absolute poverty rates from about 19% at present to 3% by 2030. In a less optimistic scenario, but historically not unlikely, levels of inequality and poverty would fall at a much slower rate, causing 12% to 14% of the world population to live below the absolute poverty line by 2030. Thus, the conclusion is that total eradication of absolute poverty by 2030 is hardly achievable, but substantial progress can be made, and it depends critically on continued high levels of world economic growth.

Professor Ravallion also stressed that these projections were made possible through a recent revolution in data availability, something the High Level Panel was asking for. To a large extent, this is attributed to a massive data collection effort by the World Bank, which not only provided better coverage of countries around the world, but also allowed for deeper insights into the nature of extreme poverty, including re-calculations and harmonization of cross-country comparable Purchasing Power Parity consumption baskets. This revolution provided more reliable inputs for his prediction models and improved the precision of estimates considerably.

Owen Barder, Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development, further emphasized this importance of credible statistics. Barder was somewhat skeptical to the report’s claim to be bold and offering a new approach, arguing that it largely reiterated the goals (jobs for young people, partnership with the private sector, reform of the financial system, etc.) already in the Millennium Declaration from year 2000. He also argued that the claim of success for the MDGs is almost entirely made on the basis of paragraph 19 of the Declaration; the objective to reduce by half the number of people living in absolute poverty. Much less progress has been made on the other explicit objectives, and all other aspects emphasized in the Millennium Declaration but which were not necessarily a part of the MDGs.

Barder suggested that there is too little effort to consistently measure whether rich countries are playing their part in the global partnership. Against that background he presented some preliminary results on the last round of the Center for Global Development’s Commitment to Development Index, calculated on the basis of OECD counties’ participation in aid, trade, investments, migration, environment, security and technology transfers. Over the last 10 years, OECD countries demonstrated on average a modest increase from four to five points on a ten-point scale, with Sweden ranked third from the top with a score of 7.2 for 2011 and 6.8 for 2012. Interestingly enough, this deterioration in the index for Sweden is mainly due to deterioration in the security component of the index, in turn resulting from larger sales of arms to undemocratic regimes, and from decreasing aid and immigration. There is obviously variation across countries, but on average there is scant improvements during the 13 years since the Millennium Declaration. This led Barder to question whether the developed countries have contributed their share to the objective of ending poverty, or if too much of the heavy lifting is left for the developing countries.

Barder concluded the presentation by pointing out the difference in language used in the report, namely the imperative used in the parts of the report describing recommendations for the developing countries, and the subjunctive used for recommendations for the developed countries. Again, to him this difference signaled the need to re-emphasize the importance of political commitment and operational goals also for the already developed countries in the Post-2015 Agenda.

Johan Rockström, Executive Director at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, started out noting that the population of the world is estimated to increase to eight billion people by 2030 and to nine billion by 2050. This, in combination with the currently prevailing development paradigm that emphasizes short-term economic growth over long run sustainability, causing degradation of biodiversity and climate change, means that we are hitting the planetary ceiling of eco-capacity. This suggests that ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option, and a new development paradigm is needed.

To address this issue, Rockström formulated a set of goals for human development balancing the needs of the environment, the needs of society and the needs of the people, all within the Earth’s life-support system. He proposed a broader framework for thinking about these issues, the so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs rather than MDGs), which rebalances the relative weight on environmental, human and economic development with relatively more emphasis on the first two. This approach unifies the MDGs with planetary necessities (material use, clean air, nutrient and hydrological cycles, biodiversity, and climate stability), and sustainable development goals (sustainable food and water security, universal clean energy, governance for sustainable societies, etc.).

Discussion Panels

The first panel of the day focused on issues of sustainable development and was started by Klas Waldenström, Senior Advisor on the Post-2015 Development Agenda at Sida. He argued that the main challenge to the new partnership paradigm discussed earlier, will be the creation of trust both across nations and across the private and public sectors. Referring to the experience of Sida, he cited the successful creation of a network of 25 private Swedish companies focusing on models of sustainable development. An important role of official foreign aid in these partnerships, he argued, was to blend direct financial transfers with a combination of political support and business sector outreach, thereby potentially leveraging the financial flows with alternative sources of capital.

David Fergusson, Deputy Director at the Office of Science and Technology at USAID, called for more and better data in order to be able to operationalize and evaluate the new strategies that hopefully will come out of the report. He also reiterated the importance of transformative solutions for sustainable development and the need to understand that ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option. He also referred to the successful cooperation between Sida and USAID as an example of international collaboration of a new kind, more of which will be needed in the future to overcome the status quo and achieve the goals put forward by the report.

Garry Conille, Special Advisor to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and UNDP, discussed his experience of working with the MDGs and stressed that possibly the most challenging part was the negotiation between different stakeholders to reach a set of issues well-defined and contained enough to be operational. From his point of view, the major challenge is the operationalization of the rather opaque and broadly defined MDGs and how to find a proper allocation of resources across the many commendable ambitions. He therefore called for an effort to make the post-2015 agenda more practical.

The issue of operationalization was discussed further by Stefano Prato, Managing Director at the Society for International Development. He argued that with such large shifts proposed by the post-2015 agenda, it is perhaps difficult to understand how to work with the vision put forward by the panel. His suggestion for the Panel was to dig deeper into the challenging areas of the report but also to develop more applied recommendations for the member states and especially so for the private institutions desired as part of the new partnerships.

This need for operationalization was supported by Jakob Granit, Centre Director at the Stockholm Environment Institute. In his opinion, the broad vision as presented in the report is indeed difficult to work with, but he also suggested that progress on parts of the agenda can be instructive for how to go further also with the more challenging parts. He also emphasized the importance of a regional approach, building on existing networks of regional partnerships, and again stressed the importance of public-private partnerships to solve common international issues.

The second panel was devoted to the role Sweden can play in global sustainable development and the post-2015 agenda. The discussion was started by Ulla Holm, Global Director at Tetra Laval Food for Development Office. She presented some of Tetra Laval’s experiences of sustainable development work in Bangladesh, an example of a successful public-private partnership. In her view, one of the main pillars of sustainability is to prevent unnecessary food loss, and this can be achieved by building an integrated value chain that supports rural development in the long run. The crucial challenge on this path is the need for concurrent public and private investments, and how to overcome coordination problems and lacking trust across stakeholders. She therefore stressed the need to construct successful public-private partnerships on a large scale and in different areas, but also to make sure to document and scale up the existing models in order to replicate success in the most cost efficient way.

Erik Lysen, Director for International Affairs at the Church of Sweden, stressed the challenges in changing existing institutions and briefly discussed the main motives that could make such changes to occur. He also argued that some of the strongest motives that would actually provide the necessary motivation for change, namely fear, could not be desirable in the long run, but still viable in a context of post-2015 agenda if complemented with better social protection, institutes of civil society and a broader public discussion. Here, NGOs could act as watchdogs and catalysts, strengthening the desire for building new institutions and providing material and human support for their construction at the same time.

Stefan Isaksson, Head of Policy Analysis at the Department for Aid Management at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, continued the discussion on the challenges of changing existing institutions. He described current efforts to remodel the Swedish aid management system in order to become a more effective bureaucracy. In his view, the major shift in thinking is that of understanding aid less as simply giving money away and more as an investment for a common future. This is needed to improve the selection process of aid projects and also to motivate better the need to make projects and their results measurable and accountable. To achieve this, broader collaboration and consultations across stakeholders is needed. He also mentioned that perhaps at present many aid projects are too conservative, that the failure rate is too low because it reflects an aversion to risk that partly defeats the purpose of official foreign aid. The private sector will always be reluctant to venture into areas with high risk even if the potential social rate of return is high, so for official aid to serve as a more effective complement to private flows, more risk tolerance may be needed.

The issue of understanding aid as investment was discussed in detail by Jonas Ahlen, Investment Manager at the Storebrand Kapitalförvaltning. He described current efforts in the area of sustainable investments, mainly centered in microfinance and agricultural loans. In his opinion, broader involvement in such practices from the private sector would facilitate a transition to sustainable practices, but would at the same time require changing existing regulations in home countries to incentivize and alleviate the risks. He also stressed the need for broader public-private partnerships in these areas and briefly described the new consultative practices established by the Ministry of Finance in Sweden to catalyze private capital participation in for instance infrastructure projects in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Finally, Homi Kharas added to the Sweden-centered discussion by stressing that there exists no systematic assessment of what public-private partnerships can do. In his opinion, possibly the most important role for Sweden is to create conditions that would facilitate public-private partnerships in development and aid. By developing and experimenting with forms of public-private partnerships, as well as with new ways of measuring and monitoring of performance of such partnerships, Sweden could create a case for broader involvement of private funding and thus accomplish perhaps the most difficult part of bridging the post-2015 with the experience and skills of the private sector.


In sum, the discussion at the Development Day 2013 clearly highlighted the importance of sustaining some of the positive trends seen lately for economic and human development but also highlighted how crucial it is to take environmental sustainability into account. There is a growing consensus that long run human development necessitates an understanding of the planetary boundaries, even though exactly what trade-offs this involves and where to put the relative weight on more short run economic development is still debatable. There was also a wide consensus around the importance to get all different parts of society involved and working in tandem. Foreign aid cannot be expected to pull the heavy load by itself. The challenges are far too wide and important. Instead, much hope was attributed to public-private partnerships, but there is a lot of work that remains to make sure these vehicles generate the hoped for solutions. The capital, experience and skills of the private sector are needed. On the other hand, getting the incentives right is not a trivial challenge. Finding models of partnerships that work and can be scaled up may be an area in which Sweden can set an example and lead the way for other nations striving to contribute to long run sustainable development.