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How has DFID's thinking evolved since 1997? Four White Papers provide a rough guide.

August 10, 2009
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Last month, the UK’s Department for International Development, (DFID), published its fourth White Paper since it was created as a fully fledged ministry by the incoming Labour Government in 1997. So what?  Well, it sets out the thinking for one of the more cutting edge bilateral aid organizations, so it’s at least worth a skim.

White Papers are a big deal when you work in government (as I did briefly, at DFID – declaration of interest). They provoke a cathartic and exhausting mix of debate and turf wars as all the relevant government departments seek to thrash out a common line, usually to a ridiculously short timetable, and subject to vigorous lobbying from those outside government (I’ve been on that side of the table, too). Once published, they largely disappear from public view (unless they lead directly to new legislation), but live on in the interstices of the bureaucracy as a weapon that civil servants can brandish in their internal battles.

Looking back over the four papers, you get a glimpse of how DFID’s thinking has evolved. All four papers have the title ‘Eliminating World Poverty’; their subtitles are more interesting.

A Challenge for the 21st Century’ (WP I,1997) sets out the stall of the new department, pledging to ‘refocus our international development efforts on the elimination of poverty and encouragement of economic growth which benefits the poor’. Out go tied aid, aid as a vehicle for foreign policy and a bunch of other dodgy practices (at least on paper).

Making Globalization Work for the Poor’ (WP II, 2000) picked up on the ‘globalization is good for you’ rhetoric of the turn of the millennium (the WTO’s Doha Round was launched shortly after), marking the high point of Washington Consensus thinking in DFID and triggering a (very) heated debate on the pros and cons of trade liberalization. But it also enshrined the International Development Targets (shortly to be renamed the Millennium Development Goals) as the ‘focus of all our development effort.’

Making Governance work for the Poor’ (WP III, 2006) amounted to saying ‘whoops, we forgot about politics’. However, since politics is a dirty word, it was sanitised as ‘governance’ – politics minus power – at both national and international level. The paper’s headline message ran:

‘Whether states are effective or not – whether they are capable of helping business grow, and of delivering services to their citizens, and are accountable and responsive to them – is the single most important factor that determines whether or not successful development takes place. Good governance requires: capability – the extent to which government has the money, people, will and legitimacy to get things done; responsiveness – the degree to which government listens to what people want and acts on it; and accountability – the process by which people are able to hold government to account.’

Despite the blind spot on power, this clearly represented a big step forward in DFID’s understanding of the political and institutional underpinnings of development, compared to the largely ‘economicist’ focus of previous white papers.

And what of Number 4? Subtitled ‘Building Our Common Future’, it reads like a stock-take of current development thinking, and rather a good one at that:

Power and politics regain their rightful place: ‘The UK will increasingly put politics at the hearts of its action. We need to understand who holds power in society, so we can forge new alliances… In the future, understanding political dynamics will shape more of our programmes’.

An interesting reframing of the debate on access to justice: ‘The UK will treat security and access to justice as a basic service, on a par with health and education, and a fundamental right.’

Putting money into supporting citizens, media and parliaments to hold governments to account – 5% of all future budget support funds will go to strengthen such efforts.

Recognition of the central role played by domestic taxation in the construction of effective states (and funding for a new International Tax Centre)

Unequivocal stance against user fees in education and health: ‘User fees in education stop children from going to school. Health costs deter families from seeking care or can plunge families into debt…. The UK favours the abolition of user fees.’

New commitments on social protection (extend SP programmes to 50 million more people in 20 countries over next 3 years)

A significant increase in attention to environmental issues, especially climate change (‘a climate crisis is already upon us… climate change will take centre stage in the UK’s international development efforts’), and the promise of extending the idea of ‘Advance Market Commitments’ to promote new low carbon technologies.

Perhaps the most innovative section of the paper is on fragile and post-conflict states. Clare Short, who was DFID’s first and most high profile minister, reckons that restoring aid to Rwanda was her greatest achievement, (at the time, aid donors shied away from the country because of the 1994 genocide) and led to some highly effective state-building. Now DFID is promising to focus more of its work and money (50% of all new bilateral country spending) on fragile states – a brave pledge, given that they are where it is hardest to ‘do’ aid, and where things are most likely to go wrong.

There is however some concern that the White Paper’s commitment to ‘integrating civilian and military efforts’ in conflicts may further blur the boundaries between humanitarian and military actors – not good news if you’re a humanitarian worker in Afghanistan.

There are of course some things you can disagree with in the paper and even more that were either weak or absent (cue interminable NGO wish list), and relations between UK NGOs and DFID get heated at times. But I can’t help feeling that DFID and its achievements may be one of the lasting legacies of the Labour Government, and would like to hear from non-UK readers about how their own aid departments measure up against the White Paper.

For more views, read Alison Evans, ODI’s new director here or Alex Evans (a former special adviser to Hilary Benn when he was development minister) here. That’s enough Evanses for now.

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