Poverty, power, development and aid under discussion

The UK Department for International Development (DFID) is preparing a White Paper. It will be its fourth one since the department was founded in 1997 in the early days of New Labour government. On Monday 9th and Tuesday 10th it held a conference in London as part of the work on the White Paper.

DFID has been at forefront of new thinking on development and in Britain there is a progressive consensus supporting overseas development aid that includes the Conservatives, even in these straitened times. But poverty persists, the long-term decline in armed conflict in poor countries has bottomed out, the economic crisis will make things worse and climate change is already a burden in many places. So alongside a sense of achievement there is plenty of uncertainty too.

Both the sense of achievement and the uncertainty were on display at the conference. Its modest theme was Eliminating World Poverty. For DFID-watchers, that sense of ambition has become typical, almost a caricature – not reducing world poverty, not mitigating, not lessening, no, straightforwardly eliminating it. Some years back I seem to remember the notion of eradicating poverty, which sounded like you called in Special Forces to get the job done. Alongside this vaulting ambition goes a sometimes overblown sense of achievement; at the conference, for example, there was a lot of talk about how the new US administration admires “the DFID model” – and these days in London (and a lot of other European capitals, come to that), there’s no higher praise than to say that Obama’s people like it.  There were also other, quieter indicators of achievement in worthwhile projects on the ground in poor countries. 

And there was some amusing commentary from Foreign Secretary David Miliband about how it’s great not to slap the Union Jack on every DFID-supported project, unlike US AID, for example, with its ubiquitous “a gift of the American people” tag (on another scale, I have a photo from eastern Congo of a small building financed by aid from the Faeroe islands). He remarked that DFID has greatly enhanced its reputation while not waving the flag -perhaps even by not waving it – and then again, he asked, what is this country Diffid that has been do so much in so many countries? He claimed he had had to face criticism during his foreign travels because, compared to Diffid, Britain’s doing nothing. Amid the chuckles, a German aid official muttered to me at the back of the hall about how he had been surprised to have been invited one time to a conference that was convened by “Germany and DFID”.

But the ambitiously modest Diffidians have their doubts about their enterprise. It may not always make for effective or winning politics to have doubts, but it is important and welcome to have them. One of the really good things about DFID is that it is surprisingly willing to be open about its uncertainties.

The likely end of the Labour period adds to the uncertainties, of course. On current indications, Conservative policy can be expected to maintain DFID as an independent department, stick with the commitment to achieve the target of 0.7 per cent of GDP spent on overseas development aid (ODA), put more emphasis on growth (and therefore trade) as a development strategy, and likewise put more emphasis on the importance of peace and security as preconditions for development. Other changes that may seem like matters of detail but which are very important to the new emphases include a belief that the current headcount of DFID staff is too low to handle some of the issues it addresses, especially in conflict countries and fragile states, and more scepticism than Labour has shown about giving ODA in the form of direct budget support to poor countries’ governments.

The Conservatives were very much off-stage at the conference, however. It was, after all, convened by a Labour government that wants to get re-elected. The Prime Minister was to have spoken in the morning but went to Northern Ireland because of the weekend murders there, returning in time to speak to the conference in the afternoon. He outlined four great global challenges that he has addressed in earlier speeches too – achieving financial stability, facing up to climate change, addressing insecurity, and addressing poverty and inequality. International institutional reform is key, he argued, which perhaps lines out one of the priorities for the DFID White Paper. Gordon Brown’s most telling line was to argue that getting out of the economic crisis will be done through “a transformative recovery because it is a low carbon recovery.”

Carbon and climate change were in the forefront of debate on the Monday afternoon. Nicholas Stern argued that the 0.7 per cent commitment to ODA should become a 1 per cent from 2015 onwards because of the costs of adapting to climate change.

This takes us into interesting and challenging territory, provocative even. The 0.7 per cent commitment is a 40-year-old political demand that has now been enshrined in international policy. As Alex Evans argued in a recent post on the Global Dashboard blog-central, the commitment has withstood just about every possible reason why it might have been rethought and recalculated. The international development environment has changed radically over 40 years but the supporters of 0.7 have kept the faith and are not about to abandon it now. Yet the volume of aid is, at best, only part of the story; quality matters as much as quantity – as a 2008 International Alert report about the World Bank put it, it’s a question of how the money is spent, not how much.

When the costs of adapting climate change are being calculated, it has become clear that the politically appropriate thing to do is to insist that funding for adaptation in poor countries must be additional to the 0.7 per cent commitment: no robbing ODA to pay for the crimes of rich world industrialisation. Like much else in the development debate, the basic politics are both admirable and a bit off balance. What’s admirable is the commitment to both development and adaptation. What’s off balance is the separation between them. If adaptation to climate change means anything in poor countries, it means adapting development strategies. It is not just a question of fixing some barrages and laying in extra sand-bags. It is about people in the most at-risk areas being able to sutain their livelihoods or, where that is not possible, move to alternative livelihoods. It is about enhancing the resilience of society and so the poor are less vulnerable. It is not an add-on to development – it is what development must be for the next three-to-four decades, even if mitigation of climate change through reducing carbon emissions is implemented as speedily and successfully as it is possible to imagine. If development is adapted, ODA will help finance adapted development – and it will not be possible to be sure where spending on development stops and spending on adaptation begins.

Now it might be that if the costs of doing this were to be calculated, we would find that it would require an ODA contribution of more than 0.7 per cent from the aid donors. But that kind of calculation has never been made and is not the basis of the original 0.7 commitment. The 0.7 is based on an idea of how much it’s reasonable to demand, and not at all on a costed plan for meeting specific development objectives.

This is only one of the ways in which the development discussion has a deficient sense of political balance. There is a reluctance to bring a discussion of power into the discussion of development. Too often, in too many countries, a key part of the problem in achieving human security and equitable development is the role of a national economic elite that has been able to grab and hold state power. It neither wants nor needs accountability to the country’s citizens. Their well-being is not the concern that predominates among the elite. Because of the nature of rule by narrow elites, challenges to the elite or a falling out within the elite can often only be pursued through violence. The standard bilateral relationship between foreign donor governments and the national government is, in those circumstances, not an instrument with which peace can be built or a fair economy can develop.

If the forthcoming DFID White Paper could honestly address this thorny topic, without the usual circumlocutions and technocratic vocabulary that muddy the mind and bedevil clear debate, it would be a major service. It would significantly contribute to enhancing international discussion on development and peacebuilding. If that resonated with other donor governments and the international financial institutions, the outcome in short order would be much more clarity and consistency in policy and in practice.

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