Promises, promises…

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post:

A promise is a promise.

Or is it? Is it really a promise if it’s not legally binding? Or if not everyone really meant it?

It’s hard to know, and advocates would argue that when it comes to promises made to the world’s poorest people, it doesn’t matter — there are no acceptable escape clauses and the letter of the commitment should be delivered. But the art of promise-making has evolved, and there are now some crafty ways to sound supportive without actually being committed. International summits like those held annually by the G8 have been littered with some in the past several years.

Ultimately, crafty language may earn some golf-applause, but if no real results are delivered for the world’s poor, then what’s the point?

Advocates and donors alike have come to the same conclusion that going forward, there needs to be much greater accountability for commitments made to development. Too much time is spent crafting language or twisting words, and too little time monitoring the actual delivery on the ground.

The G8 published their own accountability report this year — the Muskoka Accountability Report — which was released on Sunday in advance of the annual G8 Summit this weekend. It’s a welcome change of pace to have the donors themselves collecting information about their efforts to fulfill their commitments and proactively publishing an assessment that clearly reveals where the shortcomings remain.

ONE started its own accountability exercise in 2006. At the Gleneagles Summit in 2005, we celebrated when donors announced their intent to double foreign assistance, cancel debts and make trade work for Africa. But, as we noted at the time, the celebration would only truly be warranted if the rhetoric translated into results.

Every year since, we’ve issued an annual report card on the anniversary of the Gleneagles Summit to examine how well donors have done in delivering on those commitments. We worked with individual donors to translate — to the best of our ability — the true intent of their promises, with the hope that so that in the following years, we could spend time debating what they had actually delivered as opposed to what they had promised in the first place.

The results have been mixed. In this year’s report, ONE estimates that the G7 are on track to deliver roughly 61 percent of the development assistance they committed to sub-Saharan Africa. They have delivered on debt cancellation (even though there are some worrying signs of new loans accumulating) but they have been slow on improving the quality of assistance and have virtually nothing to show for their lofty language about making trade work for Africa. On more targeted sectoral commitments such as those for health, education, water and sanitation and agriculture, there are varying results: the more targeted, quantifiable goals such as those to distribute bednets or enroll children in school are more on track than systemic investments in building health systems or ensuring that children complete their schooling.

And therein lies a simple truth — that the quality of the commitment itself impacts the delivery. Both the Muskoka Accountability Report and the ONE Report reveal that much more has been done against those commitments that were made in a transparent manner with clarity as to the way success would be measured and the date by which results are to be achieved. Other commitments — like those to “make trade work” and to prioritize investments in water and sanitation — leave little to be held accountable to and that ultimately makes a difference.

It’s fantastic that the G8 has put accountability front and center on their agenda. To the optimist, it could mean that the days of empty promises are nearing an end. If this report ushers in a new era of annual reviews, and if the criteria suggested in the report mean that promise-making will now be done in a way that removes the wiggle room for future dodging, then developing countries can look forward and plan for a real partnership with donor countries going forward.