Even volcanic clouds have silver linings

April 22, 2010

What is the impact of aid on overall health spending?

April 22, 2010

How will the UK election change the development sector?

April 22, 2010
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‘British elections’ and ‘exciting’ don’t usually make it into the same sentence, but the TV debates between the party leaders have changed all that. Tonight’s second debate will focus on foreign policy, so development may even get a mention. That would be good, because so far the media perception seems to be that so much consensus makes the issue too boring to cover.

But underneath the consensus there are some deep differences in philosophy and policy that are worth thinking about. Last night I spoke 370-w180at an Overseas Development Institute meeting on what ‘doing development’ in the UK might feel like under the next government. Tricky, as for the first time in 20 years we really have no idea who’s going to win, but here are some thoughts.

What won’t change
All parties have pledged to retain DFID (the Department for International Development) as a separate government department, and see the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as sacrosanct. All parties have agreed to increase aid to 0.7 of Gross National Income (GNI) by 2013, and to enshrine this in law (in the first parliamentary session, under a Conservative government). That said, fiscal pressures will be intense and we are bound to see attempts to move the goalposts on the definition of aid (to allow other spending to be counted against the target), and may even see a serious attempt to do a U-turn, especially if a suitable aid scandal provides a pretext.

Whoever wins, the push for everyone (including NGOs) to measure impact and prove effectiveness will grow, partly to shore up public and parliamentary support for aid. I have really mixed feelings about the ‘cult of measurement’ – it distorts the business of aid towards building stuff, not changing systems, but it also helps you identify successes and drop losers.

Major Post election faultlines

1. National interest/national security: Coherence is good, right? Up to a point Lord Copper. The problem is that everyone wants to coordinate, but no-one wants to be co-ordinated.

A Conservative-led government will establish a National Security Council, chaired by the Prime Minister and a resurgent Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The idea behind this is to make sure departments talk to each other and all work towards the same strategy, but it remains to be seen how DFID under this structure will ensure that poverty eradication is at all times its number one priority. In places like Afghanistan, it is important that development is not subordinated to other priorities.

2. Geopolitics: The Conservatives’ manifesto talks of a ‘Beyond Europe’ foreign policy, giving more priority to relations with the Commonwealth and US in a party traditionally sceptical about the UK’s role in the EU. Labour is more pro-EU, and should the Lib Dems end up in charge, for example in a hung parliament, Nick Clegg, their leader and come-from-nowhere politician of the hour, is a fervent pro-European and former MEP and adviser to Britain’s Trade Commissioner, Leon Brittan in Brussels during the 1990s. What’s not clear is whether there are major differences in attitudes towards the new global centres of power, particularly the G20.

3. What drives development – states or markets? Sounds a bit 1990s, but there are still fundamental differences in the parties’ underlying frames on how development happens. Labour instinctively looks to public and state solutions; the Tories (as the Conservatives are known) lean towards market solutions. That will influence policies on things like health and education (Labour stressing the need to abolish user fees, the Tories the importance of guaranteed access, even if it comes at a cost); financial and other regulation; or the importance of state-building in ‘fragile contexts’.

4. Who gets to talk to the minister? NGOs have enjoyed an unprecedented degree of access in previous years. That will continue (the Tories are very pro-NGO – see below), but I would expect access for other actors, like private sector and churches, to rise, and ministers only have so many hours in the day.

5. Role of NGOs: Overall, the Labour government has seen NGOs as valuable formers of public opinion, with the occasional fairly clumsy attempt to use us as cheerleaders for government policy (lots of ‘reverse lobbying’ from government advisers phoning us up and telling us what to campaign on – don’t worry, we usually ignore them). The Conservatives, on the other hand, see NGOs as a good alternative to state provision in areas like health and education, and are instinctively pro voluntary action (all that faintly patronising stuff about Burke’s ‘little platoons’). But neither party particularly prizes what NGOs increasingly see as their role – advocating for changes in public policy.

Then there’s an overall question, which is hard to answer by reading the manifestos: how much bandwidth will exist for development issues? Will it become less prominent? Since the creation of DFID in 1997, a combination of prime ministerial, government and civil society activism has given development an unprecedentedly high public profile in the UK and its foreign policy. That is not a given under any future government, especially as the inevitable austerity starts to bite.

Finally, for NGOs and other denizens in the UK development jungle, it’s a mistake to think ‘the government is changing but we will remain the same’. Pressures on service delivery, access and lots of other areas will (and arguably should) change us as well. Not the principles, I hasten to add, but the language and alliances we make as we go about our work.

For more information, check out Vote Global, and for a good comparison of the various party manifestos from 2005 and 2010, see Lawrence Haddad’s analysis on his Development Horizons blog.

[Update, 22 April: international development, poverty, hunger etc got not a single mention last night. Foreign Policy, it seems, is about war and Europe. Let’s hope any future National Security Council takes a broader view]

7 comments

  1. “lots of ‘reverse lobbying’ from government advisers phoning us up and telling us what to campaign on – don’t worry, we usually ignore them”. ‘Usually’ – when have you not ignored them?

    Wasn’t the whole of Make Poverty History a “fairly clumsy attempt to use us as cheerleaders for government policy”

    Duncan: Well Nathan, I would like to think that we ignore them if they’re wrong, and listen to them if they have a point – what else would you have us do?!

  2. I believed I asked this–but not sure whether my question came across in the discussion yesterday.

    Is there not an adherence towards outdated norms–the 0.7% GNI and the MDGs to a lesser extent. The more all parties strive towards these outdated goals (the aid target hass been criticised many times) the more their development vision becomes locked into one simplitic numerical target. Isn’t ti time to reivent a neew development target?

    Duncan: Hi Jiesheng, sorry we didn’t answer you properly yesterday! The point is that when you open up a topic like 0.7 or the MDGs in a hostile climate (as there will be towards aid, in all probability, due to fiscal pressures), you are much more likely to move backwards than forwards. The original 0.7 figure was pretty arbitrary, but it has acquired substance as a measure of government commitment to spending money, so i don’t think we should abandon it now.

  3. Under Labour, UK development evolved from an addendum to power diplomacy to a lead power in forging the international consensus on development. The evidence base for the policies was not always wide, but still, the “learning and evaluating” system we have now is heavily determined by DFID. The research budget of DFID stands to the research of other donors like US military budgets to the rest of the world.

    As DFID is a loyal servant of the political principles of the government, the expected changes are important for the whole of the development crowd. I was wondering whether HRI has already positioned itself for this power shift.

  4. Duncan

    This is a good and interesting analysis of aid, but think it overstates the importance of aid. I think a far more important question is the extent to which other government policies will be responsive to the agenda of global poverty and justice.

    I’ve blogged about this here:
    http://www.owen.org/blog/3270

    regards from Dar es Salam
    Owen

  5. Your post is interesting from the NGO community/lobbyist perspective, but when it comes to development and aid the real issues have not been discussed.

    Surely wht matters is how each party will conduct itself on foreign policy matters. It’s all very well having big aid budgets and smooth-functioning institutions like DFID, but I’m certain residents of places in the world living with the consequences of British foreign policy (remember Iraq?) can be forgiven for not caring about how many NGO-government development workshops take place.

    One would love to think that the development sector is all about the beneficiary. Obviously not in these parts….

    Duncan: Stefan, I completely agree that UK’s contribution to development (positive and negative) is about far more than the aid budget – climate change, Iraq, corruption by British firms, barriers to knowledge etc etc. Disagree that aid is nothing to do with the ‘beneficiary’ as you call them – aid can clearly make a difference to the one in six of the world’s people who don’t get enough to eat, and that was not mentioned in last night’s debate. V disappointing.

  6. An interesting post, but I was a little surprised at you saying that measuring “distorts the business of aid towards building stuff, not changing systems”.

    My view – and probably that of the millions of taxpayers in the UK – is that aid should definitely be used to build stuff (hospitals, schools, roads) and pay people (teachers, nurses, doctors). I am not sure what using aid to “change systems” would mean. Sounds like jargon that doesn’t mean anything – maybe it means supporting political parties or trade unions, but that can’t be right, surely.

    I used to work for DFID China. We did some good work usig aid to build stuff, and we wasted some money trying to change systems. What country in the world has changed its systems because of external aid?

    Duncan: Fair enough Pete, ‘changing systems’ is a bit cryptic. What I mean is that for a rights-based organization, progress on some rights (health, education) is easier to measure than others (women’s empowerment). The risk of the ‘cult of measurability’ is that it drives you away from the latter, when changing systems like gender relations, or helping develop farmers’ organizations are vital aspects of development. My feeling is we need to get better at measuring the fuzzy-but-vital stuff, rather than abandon measurement.

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