Beyond Development Diplomacy: Ministerial Diversity and International Cooperation

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    Although specialised ministries have not displaced foreign affairs and development ministries, their rising prominence highlights shifts in the rationale and organisation of international cooperation.  

    The development policy arena is widely portrayed as a field facing fundamental adaptation pressures. Spurred by changes in the country contexts where cooperation takes place and the rising salience of issues such as climate change and state fragility, the evolving policy landscape is characterised by a proliferation of goals of cooperation, the diversification of actors involved, and an increase in the range of instruments used (1).  

    Alongside the emerging economies and private actors that have attracted attention as increasingly active stakeholders in cooperation with developing countries, the transformation of the policy field also involves shifts in cooperation approaches within established donor countries. Beyond the foreign affairs and development agencies traditionally at the center of OECD-DAC (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development  - Development Co-operation Directorate) donor systems, a variety of bureaucratic actors now play a role in international cooperation. These actors influence cooperation relationships by shaping domestic and international regulatory frameworks and by providing funding for initiatives implemented in developing countries.

    Diverse governmental actors as aid providers

    The participation of sector-specific ministries in international cooperation can be understood through the lens used to analyse other ‘new’ aid providers. Their positive contribution to global development relates not only to the additional resources they can mobilise, but also to their potential to generate ideas that present partner countries with a wide range of policy alternatives (2).  

    The added value of their specialised expertise may be bolstered by the ability of ministries to tap into novel policy and knowledge networks or their introduction of innovative business practices into the cooperation landscape. At the same time, there is a risk of rising aid fragmentation and coordination challenges, as diffuse initiatives increase the points of contact between donor and partner country governments and generate potential goal conflicts and prospects for duplication (3).  

    As with the broader universe of new actors, one prerequisite for understanding the value added of the development contributions managed by diverse bureaucracies and for ensuring that this funding fulfills a complementary function is an information base on the scale of funding that these actors provide, the priorities that they favour, and the implementation models they adopt. Although the peer reviews of donor policy systems conducted by the OECD-DAC suggest that the development-related activities of sector-specific ministries have increased in many donor contexts, generating knowledge on these trends requires closer attention to developments within specific bilateral systems.  

    The German and US experience

    In Germany, for example, all federal ministries provide some funding that can be classified as Official Development Assistance (ODA). In most cases, however, this funding is miniscule in comparison to the funding provided by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the Federal Foreign Office, which together accounted for more than 70% of the German ODA total in 2011 and have consolidated their positions as leading aid providers in recent years. Among sector-specific ministries, the environment ministry has overseen the most important rise in funding due to the support for climate mitigation, adaptation and biodiversity protection that it administers, though in 2011 its ODA represented less than 2% of the German ODA total (4). 

    In the United States, where 27 governmental agencies are involved in administering resources that qualify as ODA, slightly less than 70% of ODA commitments in 2011 were attributed to the U.S. State Department and USAID. As in Germany, the weight of these core agencies within the development policy system has actually been growing in recent years, even as other sector-specific players have become more noticeable aid providers. In the US context, the Department of Health and Human Services has been the most prominent sector-specific actor to adopt a more international orientation, a development accompanying the expansion of US funding for global health over the last decade. Nearly 13% of US ODA funding was attributed to the Department in 2011 (5). 

    What does it mean for the management of international cooperation?

    While the presence of diverse governmental actors as aid providers has thus not yet fundamentally challenged the central place of leading foreign affairs and development agencies in the conduct of development diplomacy, the varied cooperation initiatives that sector-specific actors oversee raise numerous questions about the direction in which the management of international cooperation is headed.

    First, there is the question of how the underlying rationale for international engagement is shifting. As varied governmental actors expand their investments in developing countries, the goals driving cooperation are becoming more diverse and more transparently framed around the promotion of mutual interests. Sector-specific ministries engage in international cooperation because they recognise the interdependence of domestic and international policy goals. As an example, the Global Health Strategy published by the US Department of Health and Human Services in 2011 stresses that because diseases do not respect national borders, international efforts to reduce the incidence of disease also carry benefits for the health of the American people. The strategy acknowledges that partner countries may be a source of solutions for American health challenges, justifying investments in international research collaboration. At the same time, the strategy indicates how this agency and its subsidiary bodies can offer added value to international cooperation, underlining the potential of mobilising departmental expertise to address global health challenges and its ability to strengthen exchange on health issues via engagement with counterparts in foreign health ministries (6). 

    Second, the involvement of sector-specific ministries in international cooperation highlights the need to consider how responsibilities for cooperation should be optimally divided among governmental actors in the future. This suggests that donor governments need to conduct competence assessments to determine the strengths of varied bureaucratic actors in engaging in developing country contexts. These strengths may relate not only to their expertise, but also to the organisational structures and procedures in place to effectively oversee and implement cooperation programmes. This type of competence assessment necessarily also involves a review of the comparative advantages of development agencies as cooperation actors. The possible strengths of development agencies include their ability to mediate between partner country and donor government interests, their cross-sectoral perspective, and their experiences in developing programmes and working procedures to enhance aid and development effectiveness.

    The performance of specialised development agencies in delivering aid varies across donor systems. Generalising from a cross-national analysis, the Quality of Official Development Assistance (QUODA) assessment noted that aid agencies did not outperform other ministries disbursing funding in developing countries on all dimensions of aid quality (7). 

    As an example, an evaluation of government performance on the implementation of aid effectiveness principles in the United States revealed that the State Department and USAID were not the most advanced government departments in internalising practices consistent with the aid effectiveness agenda (8). Beyond the nature of a bureaucratic mandate, numerous factors can influence organisational effectiveness in promoting cooperation objectives, including the constraints placed on bureaucracies by other governmental actors. Assessment criteria for evaluating organisational effectiveness ultimately have to be derived from the goals these organisations are expected to achieve. 

    A third question highlighted by the participation of sector-specific ministries in international cooperation concerns whether effective coordination mechanisms within a given donor country are in place to ensure that the diverse activities managed by various bureaucracies promote consistent goals and an efficient use of government resources. At a minimum, coordination requires transparent reporting on cooperation activities and access to information on programmes managed by other bureaucratic actors. Moving toward joint planning and the linkage of cooperation programmes on the ground implies more continuous exchange among bureaucracies, indicating that additional transaction costs may be introduced into foreign relations structures as a wider array of governmental actors increase their international profile.  

    At a broad level, the assessment of the fitness of existing coordination mechanisms also draws attention to the role that foreign affairs ministries play in orchestrating cooperation contributions from diverse actors. While foreign affairs and development portfolios have already been consolidated in some donor contexts, integrating the full spectrum of international cooperation programmes under the umbrella of a foreign affairs bureaucracy may face practical limitations, as the generalist skill set associated with the traditional diplomatic corps may be difficult to reconcile with the in-depth knowledge of technical issues needed to guide cooperation programmes in specific sectors. 

    The challenge of foreign policy coordination

    In considering whether and how to adapt foreign policy structures to address the diversity of issues and country contexts that cooperation programmes must now respond to, striking a balance between profiting from the resources, expertise, networks, and implementation models that specialised bureaucracies can contribute to international engagement and the need to promote coherent and coordinated action across government will remain a core challenge. 

    Dr. Erik Lundsgaarde is Senior Researcher at German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE).







     1. Severino, J.-M. / O. Ray. 2009. The End of ODA: Death and Rebirth of a Global Public Policy CGD Working Paper Washington, DC: Center for Global Development; Gore, C. (2013): The New Development Cooperation Landscape: Actors, Approaches, Architecture, in: Journal of International Development 25, 769-786. 

    2. Davies, P. (2011): Toward a New Development Cooperation Dynamic Canadian Development Report 2011, Ottawa: The North-South Institute; Zimmermann, F. / K. Smith (2011): More Actors, More Money, More Ideas for International Development Co-operation, in: Journal of International Development 23, 722-738.

    3. Lundsgaarde, E. (2013): Bureaucratic Pluralism and the Transformation of Development Cooperation DIE Discussion Paper, Bonn: Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE).

    4. Lundsgaarde, E. (2014): Bureaucratic Pluralism in Global Development: Challenges for Germany and the United States, Bonn: Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE), mimeo. 

    5. Ibid. 

    6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2011): The Global Health Strategy of the US Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

    7. Birdsall, N., and Homi Kharas (2010): Quality of Official Development Assistance Assessment, Washington, DC: Brookings Institution/Center for Global Development.

    8. Blue, R. / J. Eriksson / K. Heindel (2011): Evaluation of the Implementation of the Paris Declaration: United States Government Synthesis Report, Washington, DC: United States Agency for International Development. 


    This article was published in GREAT Insights, Volume 3, Issue 3 (March 2014)

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