The future of DFID, partnerships, aid and INGOs, c/o Alex Evans

Alex Evans always gives good bullet point. A former SPAD (special adviser) to DFID, turned academic/consultant at the Center for International Alex EvansCooperation, last week he gave some NGOs a whirlwind tour of his big picture thinking on development, based on a recent submission (with Owen Barder) to the UK parliament’s International Development Committee. Here are some highlights.

On DFID: Next year is DFID’s 18th birthday, but no bets on it reaching its 21st. Dragging it back into the Foreign Office would be one way to buy off the critics of aid, while sticking to promises on spending at least 0.7% of national income on aid (which may even become enshrined in law). DFID doesn’t necessarily have to be a separate department to be effective in countries, and you could even argue on the basis of Norway and Denmark’s experience that being in the Foreign Office would help promote inter-departmental ‘policy coherence’ on development issues that go ‘beyond aid’ (peace keeping, climate change, tax etc). But given how shallow support is for development, the danger is that the aid budget would rapidly be diverted elsewhere, doubtless with suitable smoke and mirrors from the spin doctors to disguise the fact – and, more importantly, that cross-Whitehall discussions would lose the voice for development and the long view that only an independent DFID, with its own Cabinet minister, can bring to the table.

partnershipOn partnerships: Lots of talk in the UN, World Bank etc about the wonder of partnerships, usually with the private sector, but they are too often presented as an alternative to policies and regulation. All too easily partnership becomes synonymous with ‘leave it to the market’. Some companies just repackage existing CSR activities as partnerships and try and get a photo op with Ban Ki Moon, but others (Alex cited Unilever, who he’s worked with on the post-2015 agenda) are more serious, and put their core business model and lobbying power behind the initiatives – we need to be much more specific about what the fuzzword ‘partnership’ actually means.

On Middle Income Countries: This is where a lot of the action currently is – both in terms of conflict (Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Ukraine) and protest movements (Egypt, Ukraine, Brazil). So an exclusive focus on low income countries could miss most of the ‘windows of opportunity’ provided by shocks (see below).

The future of aid: Aid donors have a problem: the big challenges are fragile states, inclusive growth in middle income countries, and sorting out global collective action problems from climate change to tax. And they’re not very good at any of them.

The future of INGOs: Alex is a big advocate of shock-driven change, and (like me) laments how bad NGOs are at it. He argues that we need off the shelf policies we can dust off after a shock (nice comparison with those ring binders submarine captains pull out in movies, with their instructions for any given scenario). I would add the need to build relationships and alliances with ‘unusual suspects’ well in advance of the shock, so that the trust is there to allow you to respond rapidly afterwards. See the response to Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza disaster for an example.

But we also need better narratives – an explanatory world view that makes sense of things. He thinks our current narrative has backed itself into an ‘aid will end poverty’ corner, which is not much use for the ‘beyond aid’ discussions. Big narratives often come from charismatic individuals (think Milton Friedman on the economy) but we’re quite suspicious of those. Can collective narratives emerge or are we doomed to ‘Occupy’-type confusion over what world we actually want? Looking further back, the rise of democracy, women’s rights, trade unionism, of the movement to abolish slavery, were as much collective as charisma-led processes. But they may take longer to emerge and we don’t have much time on things like climate change. Alex thinks faith-based narratives may be the best hope we’ve got – they’re established, clearly resonate, and could act as a rallying point even for the non religious (eg what about a Golden Rule coalition, or Global Stewardship movement?)

Alex’s final point was on the limits to insider advocacy as a driver of change (and he is well versed in that). He reckons we need

  • A larger ‘us’ (identifying with a global public)
  • A longer future (intergenerational thinking, well beyond short term electoral cycles)
  • A better ‘good life’ (wellbeing rather than GDP growth)

See what I mean about good bullet point?

Alex discusses his IDC submission here.

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5 Responses to “The future of DFID, partnerships, aid and INGOs, c/o Alex Evans”
  1. Heiner Janus

    Dear Duncan, Many thanks for this interesting piece. Similar to the debate in the UK we have started a discussion on the “Future of development cooperation beyond aid” in Germany. We understand beyond aid as broad umbrella term describing the transformation of development cooperation across a number of “dimensions”. We identify finance, actors, regulation and knowledge as the main dimensions where aid is loosing relevance and faces pressure to adjust to a new context. This adjustment process could broadly lead towards either a “specialisation” or “integration” of aid.

    In the case of specialisation, aid retains the focus on poverty reduction and concentrates on an ever smaller number of mostly fragile countries. In the case of integration, development cooperation supports a more complex system of global development objectives, including the provision of global public goods. In both scenarios, development cooperation needs to strengthen its linkages with other areas of international cooperation along the four dimensions of beyond aid: actors, finance, regulation and knowledge.

    More here:

    Best wishes,

    Sebastian and Heiner

  2. simon

    Interesting reflections, particularly the positivity about faith-driven action.

    The last note about living well sounds like a quote from the Bolivian constitution enshrining an “alternative” development model of “living well” (sumaj qamaña / vivir bien) which is rooted in the worldview of indigenous Bolivian cultures – ie we all get what we need rather than some get lots and others get a bit. All quite idealistic but it sounds good.

    More here:

  3. Dag Ehrenpreis

    In Sweden, Sida has always been an agency with executive autonomy, guided by directives and a budget from the MFA. This has not prevented the Government from diverting ever more funds from Sida to other more or less development-related agencies or departments, from huge debt relief to countries like DRC some years ago to asylum refugee reception in Sweden lately, the latter now about to surpass bilateral ais to S-S Africa(!).

  4. Jenny Ricks

    Hi Duncan – good summary. My reading of what he was saying on partnerships was also that it’s often more powerful when companies put their lobbying power behind something alongside NGOs e.g. against biofuels targets. But that’s not necessarily indicative of a wider alignment of interests or an ongoing partnership

  5. Alex Evans

    Dag – yes, absolutely – but political culture in Sweden is so much more progressive on development than ours in the UK, including in your Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The fact that the UK is unlike Sweden in that respect is one reason why I think we continue to need a separate DFID at the Cabinet table…

    Jenny – yes, that’s what I was getting at and I think you’re right that partnerships will tend to be issue-specific rather than across the board: as you say, interests will rarely align 100% with no trade-offs or difficult issues.

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