Few people have a good word to say for the British government these days, few British voters anyway. But I like not to follow the crowd. And on international development, they have got something worthwhile going on. There are signs of a real rethink that has a chance of paving the way to making overseas aid more effective.
As I reported in my post of 11 March, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) has decided to produce a White Paper this year. Quite why is not clear from the outside, where we all assume that a change of government is on the way. Whatever the reason, the process of consultation and drafting has made possible a wide ranging discussion about what development is and how well we are doing at it.
For plenty of people in the development industry, including the mainstream majority among development NGOs and in DFID, there is little if any reason to be asking what development is because it has all been spelled out by numerous international declarations and undertakings and put into the form of targets in the Millennium Development Goals.
I beg to differ. As general aspirations, the MDGs are laudable, but expressed as targets they inevitably produce perverse incentives, skewed perceptions and a technocratic approach:
- Perverse incentives: the quickest way to get credit for reducing the number of poor people is by putting Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) into highly populous countries with fast-growing economies, such as China and India. But the ODA they still receive is a very small part of their investment. Their economies would probably have grown at about the same rate over the last decade regardless. Meanwhile, the MDGs offer less incentives for directing aid to the poorest countries and the hardest cases.
- Skewed perceptions: the MDGs incline much of the development community towards thinking about development as a matter of literacy, health, women’s participation, clean water – all important but all, with the exception of women’s participation, products of development rather than its motor. On top of that, the MDGs set global targets and, at the top of the development tree, encourage a view that obliterates the detail at ground level; in development, the specific context is everything but the MDGs direct the gaze away from that to the general targets.
- Technocratic approach: cross-cutting general targets with minimal attention to specific contexts combine to produce an emphasis on technical assistance and direct support to governments. Sometimes, this is genuinely useful; a lot of the time, it is beside the point; sometimes it is actively harmful, with aid money going more or less straight into the hands of rapacious elites who are part of the problem, not the solution. When this approach is followed regardless, it is not just technical but technocratic.
In polite company, those who are aware of the distorting effects of the MDG focus generally feel they cannot get away with a root and branch critique. The polite formulation is to say that in order to achieve the MDGs it is necessary to deal with bad governance and conflict. The impolite truth is that after almost a decade of MDGs, a lot of the shrewdest people in development wish they had never been devised, and especially that they had never been turned into quantitative targets.
In too many countries where people are burdened with the risk, impact or aftermath of violent conflict, together with its constant companion, bad governance, the MDGs offer nothing. When the burning issue in education is whether girls will be raped by local militias on their way to the school or on their way from it, then the necessity of working on peace and security before genuine development can happen is quite apparent.
It’s just no good trying to treat developing countries overwhelmed by poverty, unstable institutions and poor governance as if they were a Scandinavian social-democracy. Donor government officials busily try to align their ODA with the expressed priorities of the beneficiary government, which all too often leads to a dishonest relationship. Faced with geneuinely difficult dilemmas of supporting development where conflict is rife and states lack either the capacity or the will (or both) to govern in the common interest, what we need are not generic targets and a bland official assurance that things are going in the right direction (though, to be sure, with room for improvement – when the development industry gets together, it is de rigeur to acknowledge possibilities to improve). What we need instead of the polite formulations is an honest conversation.
Lo and behold – that’s what DFID seems to be up to. The major piece of evidence for this is the speech in New York on Monday by Douglas Alexander, the Secretary of State for Development. It’s not perfect (always room for improvement) for he begins by dutifully digressing into Afghanistan, which is misleading because its place in US foreign policy makes it, even today with Obama in the White House, a completely different case from cases such as Nepal, let alone Congo, or even Sudan or Somalia. But he hits his stride with a full frontal look at the importance of facing up the challenge that conflict and fragile states pose to standard development practice, and acknowledging that “many who want to eliminate world poverty have been wary of working in this area.”
This is, by the way, the origin of some of the dishonesty in conversations about development hitherto – good people who want to work in conflict-affected countries, because the need is real, but not on the conflict because that would unsettle their assumptions.
And the core of what this means is (mostly) clearly put by Alexander. It means supporting lasting political settlements, working towards sustainable peace, helping build effective and legitimate states, and helping states deliver services, jobs and growth. The bit he hasn’t quite got his teeth into yet is the importance of the legitimacy of states – he is explicit that they must be effective but only implies that they must be legitimate; it’s a leftover bit of political correctness (for who are we to say etc etc?) and it just gets in the way. But it doesn’t get too much in the way because he takes the argument to its rightful conclusion: “To deliver these four objectives will require us to engage more directly and unashamedly with political institutions ti deliver inclusive political settlements.”
Translated, this takes the development industry right out of its comfort zone: “Development – at a fundamental level – is about politics… by which I mean the establishment of the right relationships across society.”
Three factors make this all the more interesting:
- DFID is a major player in international ODA, punching above its very significant economic weight because of its record for innovative work and analysis;
- Signs are that the Conservatives – presumably in power by summer next year – will keep to current spending targets on ODA and modify policies to place more emphasis than hitherto on securing the peace as a precondition for development;
- That is also part of the Liberal-Democrats approach.
In other words, a new, more realistic and more subtle consensus on supporting development is beginning to emerge. Expect some hard words and resistance from the old school, but this is exciting stuff. Change for the better may well be on its way.