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

September 18, 2014 5 By Duncan Green

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.