The new UK coalition and international development policy

The dust has settled, the first peacetime coalition in seven decades is in office and the work begins. What about UK international development policy under the new blue and yellow colours?
Dan Smith
24 May 2010

There are some big foreign policy questions for a new government to tackle: the effects of the recession combine with the rise of new powers to shake the world order. A new global balance will mean respecting new realities in the distribution of power. William Hague, has already visited Hillary Clinton in Washington and the coalition is starting to flesh out its approach to the EU, especially on the formation of the External Action Service. On this, it will be fascinating to see the degree to which, if at all, the Liberal-Democrats’ Europhilia tempers the Euro-hostility of the Conservatives.

Within that broader framework of foreign policy, there sits policy on international development and overseas development assistance (ODA). This did not surface at all during the campaign, partly because the country turns inward at election time and at least as importantly because the major parties’ positions reveal a lot of agreement.

But it’s an area in which the UK is a major and respected player and a field that matters. International development touches on or is partly determined by climate change, the risk of pandemics, trade, peacebuilding and international security. And while development policy is an area of major political consensus in the UK, there are significant divergences below the headlines. One of those divergences is about the coordination of development and foreign policy. And there are some policy issues to tease out about the durability of some commitments and the likely meaning in practice of others. We can take them in turn – institutional coordination, then policy.

The Conservatives and DFID

One of the Conservatives’ criticisms of development policy under Labour was that the Department for International Development (DFID) - a creation of the Labour government - had got somewhat too big for its boots due to having so much money and had started to have its own foreign policy, separate from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office itself. The Conservatives promised to bring this uppity teenager into line, give it some discipline, simultaneously making it look more like a government department while giving it some sort of personnel injection from the private sector, and coordinating it better with the FCO.

The core idea is that the FCO will carry out the analysis and make the political decisions at which point DFID will step forward with its money and technical know-how and carry out the work.

The Lib-Dems did not share these Tory suspicions. The long-serving development shadow while the Conservatives were in opposition, Andrew Mitchell, has taken the Cabinet post as Secretary for International Development, so he has a chance not only to put policies into action but to set about generating his preferred institutional culture.

Changing organizational culture

There are five problems with the kind of critique the Conservatives made in opposition about the way that DFID works.

▪                       Organisational culture emanates from the institution itself and is largely unspoken and ambient. It can be hard for the newcomer to shift the attitudes of the long term staff, especially when the incentives for resisting the reform effort and dragging feet increase with the number of possible reasons why it might not last.

▪                        An important part of the critique is about surface phenomena – about how DFID looks and feels. The thing is, how things look can be changed pretty easily. You want them to look more like civil servants? No problem: ties on for the men and no more chinos, jeans, cords or those ghastly checked shirts and dark and sober suits for the women. It’s that easy and the odds are that the leadership loses focus on slow-going institutional change and settles for the cosmetic change.

▪                       DFID is a complex institution. At its worst, DFID gets into ticking boxes and being bureaucratic; at its best, it has shown considerable drive, capacity to innovate, an ability to learn as it goes along. Of all government agencies of international development, it is capable of being the most impressive at translating lessons learned into new practice and insights into policy proposals. Those virtues grow to a significant degree from the NGO-ish feeling in DFID – specifically from the combination of idealism and practicality – that for other reasons Andrew Mitchell decries.

▪                       It’s all very well to say that the FCO does the policy and political analysis and DFID does the implementation but the distinctions are not that crisp in practice. And especially if DFID will continue on the path set by the Labour government of engaging in the politics in development assistance and addressing conflict, DFID will need to retain a considerable capacity for political analysis and engagement.

▪                       Lastly, it’s OK again to say that the FCO does the political analysis but what if – as many observers have been saying for the past couple of years – what if it doesn’t have that capacity any more at an adequate level? What if it has the time and staffing capacity to get the big picture in a country but can’t really pick up the regional variations, the differences between social groups, the granularity of analysis?

Ethos and motivation

In correcting what he feels to be wrong in DFID Andrew Mitchell will need to distinguish between what needs to change and what does not.

Two things are pretty clear from his speeches and statements over a considerable period as well as from last year’s policy paper.

▪  The first, ironically enough perhaps, is that Mitchell himself is also motivated by that NGO-type combination of idealism (belief that there should be a better world) and practicality (wanting to make it happen) that in some aspects he decries. For what it’s worth, that same sort of feeling also seems to motivate David Cameron on development; it’s why he was off visiting projects in Rwanda in July 2007 when a lot of England was flooded, including part of his own constituency, and politicians were supposed to make the rounds of stricken areas and voice concern. He took a considerable amount of stick for deciding to fulfil his commitments in Rwanda rather than doing the standard politicians’ thing.

▪   And the second is that, though they are critical of important aspects of DFID’s work (and have made some very good points about DFID’s focus on the scale of input to assisting development rather than the quality of output and outcome), the Conservatives recognise plenty that is worthwhile in DFID’s record.

Retaining what is worthwhile and top quality about DFID while addressing other issues including organisational culture, will require care.

The need to set out a programme of change

This is not something that gets done by a couple of memos issued from the office of the secretary for international development. Andrew Mitchell and his team are going to need to set out a  programme of change that has at least the following features:

  1.         Strategic clarity: much here depends on whether DFID does indeed prioritise issues of conflict, peace and security more than it has in the past, as Labour, Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats all said was necessary in 2009. If it is replaced by another strategic direction, I will be less happy but the logic of an organisational programme of change will still work fine. It is if the strategic directions get muddied that the problems will arise.
  2. A way of assessing progress: benchmarks to know the starting point, indicators to evaluate the effect of changes made, and an overall sense at the outset of what eventual success will look like.
  3. Roll-out for staffing: a programme of change has to get into the fine grain of staffing – how people work, what their incentives and rewards are, how long they stay in different posts, which are the prestige positions, the training they get as the move from one post to another.
  4.  Coordination with the FCO: if indeed the idea is to run down DFID analytical capacity, that can only be done safely if the FCO’s is beefed up. This in turn requires re-thinking analytical needs within the FCO; I remain sceptical that a traditional diplomat’s country-knowledge really does provide an adequate basis for even broad level decisions about what kinds of in-country development assistance is needed.

It will be fascinating to see if and how this task is taken on in the coming months. 

Three questions on international development

The ground of discernible consensus in 2009′s policy statements from all three main parties covered at least the following high ground:

▪  Morality and self-interest unite to construct an overwhelming case in favour of providing assistance to international development in poor countries;

▪  The level of spending on development should rise to 0.7% of Gross National Income by 2013;

▪  The UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set the framework and targets of international development efforts;

▪  Though not mentioned among the MDGs, peace and security issues and the political dimension of development have to be engaged with if development efforts are to succeed;

▪  Crafting a comprehensive response to climate change that both gets the problem under control over time and helps poorer countries to adapt to the effects of climate change have become a key component of development strategy.

Despite those broad areas of agreement, there are differences below the headlines and there are also some issues of nuance and emphasis that may presage important differences if not in declared policy then in its implementation.

In the new government the Cabinet position of Secretary of State (Andrew Mitchell) and the non-Cabinet posts of Minister of State (Alan Duncan) and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Stephen O’Brien) are all held by Conservatives. The Lib-Dems did secure some important points in development policy during the negotiation of the coalition agreement. It’s nonetheless inevitable that the key questions about how development policy will unfold under the new government are primarily about the Conservatives’ preferences.

The question of spending

The government is not only committing itself to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas development assistance (ODA) by 2013 but, following a practice of legal self-binding that Labour set, intends to introduce a law to ensure it meets the target. This is a Lib-Dem win: the Conservatives were against the idea of a legally binding target until now even though they supported the target itself.

But is the 0.7% commitment durable? During the past year and a half, with the Conservatives committing themselves to the internationally agreed target of 0.7% and the economic crisis unfolding, there was a steady background drumbeat from some party circles along the lines that, whatever got said in opposition, in government it would be different. As the cuts in other areas of public spending started to bite, would it be possible, they sceptically wondered, to keep on sending large sums of taxpayers’ money ‘over there’?

Is it likely that this summer we will both see an emergency budget with the first of the promised cuts and a bill being laid before parliament to keep increasing ODA? If that’s an unlikely pairing, we can suppose the bill will be delayed. The coalition agreement says on the outside of the back cover, “The deficit reduction programme takes precedence over any of the other measures in this agreement, and the speed of implementation of any measures that have a cost to the public finances will depend on decisions to be made in the Comprehensive Spending Review.”

The question is not about the arithmetic of the budget but rather the political signals and symbolism. Does the government think that Britons can tighten their belts at home without also tightening the purse strings abroad? The big spending review will report in the autumn – probably not a good time to bring the bill on 0.7% forward. But if it’s delayed till next year, as bigger cuts loom, circumstances will be even less propitious – and less favourable again as the cuts bite into public sector services and jobs. It might not be until economic recovery is well established that it feels straightforward to bring the bill in; that might be a couple of years hence, not far short of the target date of 2013 – and then what would be the point?

In short, the coalition government stands rather close to the top of the slippery slope down to Sometimenever Land where good political intentions fall asleep. It needs to be emphasised that the government has already answered this question with great clarity in the coalition agreement, which, alas, is not enough to lay the question to rest. That will happen only when the bill is actually brought before parliament.

Questions of conflict and security

The increasing depth and breadth of the recognition that how a country is governed and whether it is stable and peaceful are core determinants of whether its people will find prosperity and the society will develop has been a welcome feature of the last half decade. The last government’s 2009 development white paper was a major milestone in setting out the importance of engaging with politics and addressing conflict in order to assist development.

The Conservative opposition embraced the same argument but there was a difference.

When their green paper was published shortly after Labour’s white paper, I pointed out in my review of it (24 October 2009) that while there was material in it about the relationship between security and development, most of it focused on the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are wholly un-typical of the kind of insecurity that haunts and undermines development prospects in many developing countries. When I had the opportunity to query Andrew Mitchell – then the shadow minister for development – about this, he insisted that the importance of the peace and conflict issues were not confined to the high profile, high octane cases of Afghanistan and Iraq where British forces were or had been directly engaged in combat. The issues were, he said, just as pressing albeit in different forms in a range of developing countries afflicted by conflict, insecurity and poor governance.

But the full coalition agreement as published contains only two references to conflict and security issues in the international development section: one is to announce support for an international treaty “to limit the sale of arms to dangerous regimes” and the other is to promise “a more integrated approach to post-conflict reconstruction where the British military is involved.”

This is not the broad concept of insecurity and conflict that Mitchell talked about in opposition. The very word “reconstruction” tends to distract attention from the need not just to reconstruct what was there before, which took the country into war, but actually to build something new. Nor is there any mention here of the problem of development in circumstances of bad governance and fragile states.

I am very readily aware that the coalition programme is a document dealing in headlines and broad categories. But this is not a detail in international development policy, it is a central challenge.

So the second question on development policy is, what happened to the conflict analysis and the governance agenda?

Lastly, a sustainable justification

And that brings us to the third question. Re-reading last year’s Conservative green paper on development, I was struck again that there is a genuine enthusiasm for development assistance in these pages and for getting it right and equally that the examples that are taken to show how development assistance can work are projects.

The problem, to be blunt, is that countries do not develop on the basis of development projects.

Development projects can be delivered on time and have the expected impact in terms of literacy or numbers of people immunised – yet development does not happen because the overall patterns of power do not change and a small elite continues to thrive while (and sometimes by) holding the mass of the population back. In these circumstances, these projects can be extremely important but that importance lies in human terms – in the prevention of disease, the alleviation of misery or the expansion of opportunity for those individuals and groups lucky enough to be beneficiaries.

If there is a theory of change connected to these projects it is simply that if there were enough such projects, everybody would benefit and then…

And then, unless the distribution of power altered, the country’s development would still be held back.

To make this point a little too bluntly, 0.7% of UK GNI’s worth of projects plus an integrated approach to post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan do not add up to a persuasive justification for the government’s commitment to continue spending generously on ODA.

As I have argued in previous posts, a new and sustainable justification for continued ODA is badly needed - partly for reasons arising from the juxtaposition of domestic spending cuts with ODA increases; partly, because in some places the shortfall compared to the goals is going to be extreme; and partly, because new challenges are unfolding – a combination of the consequences of climate change and growing population is already generating stresses that many states are simply unable to cope with.

So the third question is about the need to identify a new narrative of development that sustains a new argument for supporting it through ODA and in other ways. The answer would be easier if the new government were to revisit the conflict and security issues in development, re-focus on them, broaden them from the artificially narrow terms of the published coalition programme and put them higher up the development agenda again. And this reformulated narrative of development and of assisting development would itself make the arguments for a law to spend 0.7% of GNI on ODA more credible.


See the full two-part blog from www.dansmithsblog.com

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