The coming collapse of the aid system?

There are signs of coming collapse all around us.  The complexity of the system is accelerating, despite the good intentions of the Paris and Accra declarations, as the system struggles to cope with change.  Here is a graph showing the number of individual aid projects recorded in the AidData database:

This comes from the blog of Owen Barder. His apocalyptic musings were inspired by NYU professor Clay Shirky blogging about Joseph Tainter’s book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, which describes how advanced societies (the Romans, the Mayans) become inflexible and collapse rather than adapt in the face of stress.

Owen sees evidence for impending implosion of the aid system in the proliferation of aid projects (pictured above), the popularity of anti-aid views from figures like Dambisa Moyo and Andrew Mwenda, and emerging actors like China and the Gates Foundation that work to some degree outside the existing aid system.

The post is full of great examples illustrating the development bureaucracy truism that it is perversely much easier to make something more complex than it is to make it simpler. The most succinct: “Senegal has 82 individual aid coordination forums.” He also describes a recent donor meeting in Ethiopia intended to simplify and streamline the aid landscape in which each donor came prepared only to make the case for their essential involvement in every single sector.

Why should this be so? Owen observes that “the bureaucratic and political need to be involved in many sectors in every country is a far more powerful force than the intangible development benefits of simplification.” A new paper presented at the recent Aid Data launch conference argues that bilateral donors fractionalize their aid into smaller and smaller projects order to increase their control over aid expenditure.  Once again, it’s all about control and what makes good politics for the donor, not about what’s most effective for the recipient.

These examples and new research make it easy to follow the argument that the sector is doomed to become more and more complex. But what the apocalypse will look it – or if it will happen – is very unclear.