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December 9, 2014

You can’t take a supertanker white-water rafting: what future for International NGOs?

December 9, 2014

Did Britain’s Aid Programme (and maybe aid in general) just get its Mojo back?

December 9, 2014
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[Mojo: NOUN (plural mojos), chiefly USmagic charmtalisman, or spell]

I got back from Malta on Friday, just in time to watch the end of the House of Commons debate on enshrining in British law the longstanding, but widely ignored,

turn up save lives 2international commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on international development. By an overwhelming majority (146 to 5), the bill passed. It still has to go to the House of Lords, but it looks pretty certain that it will become law.

In political terms, this is extraordinary. When governments around the world are cutting aid budgets and abolishing aid departments, and at a time of widespread austerity hitting nearly all other functions of government, the Brits have become not only the first G8 country to reach 0.7, but also the first to fix it in law. It doesn’t make it impossible for a future government to do a U turn, but it massively increases the political costs and obstacles to doing so.

Why did it happen? There has long been a striking level of cross party leadership and consensus on aid in the UK. Labour set up DFID as a cabinet level department, with Gordon Brown and Tony Blair investing serious political capital at Gleneagles and elsewhere. David Cameron and George Osborne have been firm in their support for aid and the 0.7 target. The private members’ bill debated on Friday was brought by a former Liberal Democrat cabinet minister, Michael Moore.

A long British tradition of NGOs and faith-based organizations laid the grounds for an effective lobby of MPs by their constituents. Founded 17 years ago, DFID has become the world’s leading bilateral aid agency. And yes, I dare say there are elements of colonial hangover – duty, guilt, or White Man’s Burden, you decide.

Some impressive lobbying

Some impressive lobbying

I can’t help being a contrarian, and amid the euphoria, noted that some of the most interesting current work on reforming aid, such as the Doing Development Differently initiative, emphasizes that money is often not the main need in tackling issues such as dysfunctional governance – indeed, it can get in the way. How does the vote affect that debate?

Following the vote, the FT argued that it ‘wrongly puts the priority on the quantity of money that Britain spends on aid rather than the quality of its projects.’  Actually, the exact opposite is true. Having now settled the issue of aid quantity, aid organizations, decision makers in developing countries, academics and critics can start to address issues of aid quality that have previously received too little public attention – not least because supporters of aid have been understandably wary that public constructive criticism intended to improve the way aid works would be twisted by ‘gotcha’ critics looking to cut the budget.

This is particularly true in the case of innovation. Aid agencies need to find new answers and approaches on everything from fragile states to climate change to rights and accountability. But fear of failure and a tendency towards box-ticking has made it extremely hard to experiment, fail and learn. Aid sceptics have argued in the past that the sheer volume of aid makes it impossible to be agile, flexible and try out new things, and that ‘less and better aid’ should be the mantra. But a shrinking aid budget comes with anxiety and pressures of its own – there is no sign of those countries that have cut aid becoming suddenly more innovative. Quite the reverse.

The next frontier challenge is how to use aid money to help find these new solutions. Perhaps the big battalions of aid dollars could be directed where we know they are effective – vaccines, research, teachers and nurses, direct support to governments. Then other parts of the aid community can focus on those areas (such as governance), where the need is for brains not bucks – DFID and others won’t have to constantly look over their shoulders and worry about attacks from the aid sceptics when funding research, trying out new things (with a consequently higher likelihood of failure) and finding and keeping expert staff (especially from the countries concerned).

Getting serious about issues of quality and innovation matters not just because it will ensure that aid has wider impact. It will also help prevent any subsequent reversal

Now can we talk about quality please?

Now can we talk about quality please?

of Friday’s vote. Despite leadership from the top, support for aid among backbenchers is shallow, and public opinion polls are contradictory. Aid proponents would be very unwise to rest on their laurels after this vote – there is a lot of work to be done.

If Friday’s decision leads in that direction, this could be the dawn of a whole new era for British aid, hopefully with knock-on effects on other donors. Aid might just have got its mojo back.

For other analysis of the vote, try the Guardian’s Larry Elliot insisting that every silver lining has a cloud.


  1. Much as I want to agree with you wholeheartedly, I’m not entirely sure I agree that fixing the quantity of aid will enable a focus on quality. For a start, making it a percentage of GDP means there will still be variances in the budget depending on overall economic performance of the country. The 0.7% also says nothing about how ODA is allocated across different interests – for example, will defence spending, or domestic immigration efforts, or visits by the pope increasingly be counted as part of the 0.7%? The political debate will not end, I fear, it will merely shift to focus on what is ‘in and out’.

    Sigh. Time for a cup of tea.

  2. I’m with Ben. I can’t see how guaranteeing 0.7% for ODA will increase the attention paid to aid quality. If anything, it will make the aid industry feel a greater sense of entitlement, and make it somewhat less accountable, than when it has to fight for its budget.

  3. Yes please can we talk about quality; I’ve been waiting for this moment for years! I agree with Ben that the quantity of the aid budget is not going to disappear completely, but I’m looking forward to there being space for a real discussion on the quality of aid and how aid can be used to best effect among the mix of development finance tools.

    Could this be a whole new era for British aid? There are several of moments which aid proponents in the UK (and beyond) could use to take advantage of the potential opportunity that this Bill – if passed – would present in order to elevate discussions on aid quality and innovative solutions.
    1) The OECD DAC’s peer review of UK aid is due for publication in December. This could shed light on what is working for DFID, what DFID could do better and highlight innovative new areas that DFID could pursue.
    2) The UK’s International Development Select Committee’s current inquiry on ‘Beyond Aid’ challenges the role of aid, and DFID within the UK’s approach to development. The final report could offer suggestions for approaches to maximise the role that aid can play and how DFID could work more effectively with other Whitehall departments. Alternatively a disappointing outcome of this would be if it led to debates on the share of ODA allocated to various departments.
    3) The financing for development conference in Addis Ababa in July will be a defining moment for the UK to really test out its role as a ‘global leader’ on international development. What influence will the UK be able to have among the BRICS and other donors? Will the UK seek to strengthen donors’ commitments to improve the quality of aid for example to untie aid and ensure that it is in line with partner country priorities and national development plans?

  4. I recently heard someone senior at DFID telling staff that the move to 0.7% will mean greatly increased scrutiny, including in the media, which means that they need to deliver results on each and every programme. How that fits with discussions about experimentation, adaptation etc I don’t know. I’m with Larry Elliott on this one – there’s every chance that this could be a case of winning the battle but losing the war. Ben, I’ll join you for that cup of tea…

    I also don’t think that the lessons from ‘doing development differently’ or elsewhere need to be taken with a pinch of salt when it comes to the majority of aid spending. Sure, projects aimed at social or political change – like getting a law passed, for example – may not require much in the way of funding, but big infrastructure projects certainly do. I would expect to see much more investment in infrastructure, as it’s the only way to spend this kind of money with current staffing levels.

    Two things to keep an eye on, which will help me figure out whether or not I’m an optimist or a pessimist for DFID’s future: 1) what becomes counted as ODA going forward (as Ben points out), and 2) the results of the election in May. Right now I’m neither, but that could change in a few months time.

  5. This is completely anecdotal, but, I’d say that Denmark’s history of cross-party agreement on foreign aid spending (0,8 – 1.0 %) has had the effect that there’s been no creative destruction. Drivers of change have been domestic political agendas.

    (Besides, the current centre-left government has just reduced next year’s budget along with including domestic immigration efforts to the sheets. And the opposition has proposed major cuts in the future.)

  6. OK, well I don’t seem to have convinced many people on this! But it does remind me a bit of the election of New Labour in 1997 when, despite a landslide victory, Blair, Brown and co remained in their oppositional defensive crouch for years afterwards, and missed many opportunities as a result.
    Yes there will be definitional disputes at the edges (Ben), domestic political agendas (Soren) and accountability will remain an issue (Owen), but up to now, accountability concerns seem to be more about minimising failures and [unsuccessfully) trying to avoid headlines in the Daily Mail. If the aid community can shake off its fears and get on the front foot, it can move onto a more grownup kind of accountability for actual results, which will entail greater risk taking and innovation.

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