Development thinking develops – DFID’s white paper and what comes next

It can be safely predicted that ideas and the terms of discussion about international development will change fundamentally in the coming five years.  A major policy statement from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) marks an important milestone on this road, though it’s a long way from being the endpoint. In this very long post, I explore the white paper and a way of taking DFID’s logic forward.

An unfolding debate on conflict & politics

DFID’s white paper, Eliminating World Poverty: Building our Common Future, published on 6 July, caps a process of steadily staking out new ground on development issues, on which I reported in earlier posts this year – “Poverty, power, development and aid under discussion” on 11 March and “British government rethinks development, putting peace first” on 30 April. With the white paper, it is clear that since Douglas Alexander became Secretary of State in 2008, DFID has moved to put unprecedented emphasis on conflict and on politics as key determinants of the prospects of success in development and development assistance.

It has not happened overnight and DFID is not the unique originator of this thinking.  The argument that peace and development go hand in hand or not at all is hardly original, conforms to what many would regard as old-fashioned commonsense and has received expression in various policy documents and statements from different governments and international bodies in recent years. It was articulated with particular effectiveness in A more secure world: our shared responsibility by a high-level UN panel reporting to then Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2004. International Alert has been making this argument for several years along with plenty of researchers, NGOs and public figures.

Never before, however, has an institution with the weight of DFID set out the arguments so clearly. What is particularly important is not simply that the conflict/peace issue is foregrounded but that the question of politics is.

The attempt to treat development as essentially non-political, and thus to treat development assistance as essentially technical, is one of the abiding weaknesses of the international development industry. DFID is putting that right and we should applaud it.

Leaving the technical comfort zone

But there will resistance to this new course. Addressing politics will be genuinely seen by some and opportunistically depicted by others as unwarranted intrusion by the rich in the affairs of poor countries. Keeping the politics out and thus treating development aid as an essentially technical exercise is attractive to many of those who buy the moral and pragmatic arguments for supporting development in other countries, yet understand the potential pitfalls of doing so and worry that if the pitfalls are explored too deeply, public support might fall away.

A technical approach to development and development aid seems to allow its providers and implementers to avoid the trap of becoming too intrusive and controlling along old imperial and neo-colonial lines. It seems to permit development assistance to be a way of doing unarguable good to which all commit themselves equally and as partners, just like humanitarian assistance. A technical approach seems to make the moral importance of development assistance plainer while political issues risk complicating it. Indeed, all attempts to keep the politics out of development assistance implicitly paint it as basically an extension of humanitarian aid.

And what’s wrong with that?

Here’s what:

  1. First of all, it’s dishonest. In the previous paragraph, in my mind’s eye as I wrote it, hidden italics emphasise the word seems. For all the talk of partnership and local ownership that characterises current international development discourse, power relationships are unavoidable. There are two sets of power relationships: the first is between rich states and poor states; the second is between the elites who control poor states and their citizens. Thinking you can get involved in these countries with lots of money without coming up against these power dynamics is simply naive. Yet both sets of power relationship are occluded in much official discussion of development policies and in all too many non-official discussions as well. Hard and central questions are consistently ducked, evaded or softened.
  2. It doesn’t work. Development projects normally get completed, but all too widely development as such doesn’t happen. That’s not surprising given the difficulty of having a truly honest discussion about development, about what specific countries need if they are to develop and what hinders them from doing so. When there are systematic even if indirect obstacles in the way of honest discussion of the basic issues, it is by definition somewhere between difficult and impossible to plan strategically for development and monitor progress properly.

This is what is refreshing, important and praiseworthy about the DFID white paper: it gets the discussion of development into the gritty, uncomfortable area of how power is arranged and distributed that defines whether and how development will occur.

Of course, all of this begs the question: what is development? Read on – that’s where this post is heading but there are a couple of other points to take in first.

Drivers of change

The white paper is sprinkled with signs of a change in thinking. Key among them are

  • focusing on governance in the chapter on growth (chapter 2, p31 et seq);
  • the prominence given to climate change (chapter 3) and its integration into the development agenda ( e.g., p49 & 54: “Climate change … will take centre stage in the UK’s international development efforts”);
  • the prominence given to building peace (chapter 4) – “We cannot eradicate world poverty if we ignore countries affected by conflict or bad governance” (p69);
  • the commitment to “focus directly on what makes states fragile and fuels violence” and the recognition solutions to these problems “must be rooted in politics” (p70); 
  • the understanding of security and access to justice for ordinary people as “basic services” (p75 et seq),

What has been driving these changes in thinking are, as far as I can judge, essentially three factors: the issue of aid effectiveness, the challenge of climate change, and the MDG conundrum. The first of these is explicit in the white paper, the second is semi-explicit, while the third is my inference.

Aid effectiveness: This issue is often addressed in ways that focus first on delivery, on getting the aid money to the right destination, and thus often onto corruption. But corruption in a narrow sense of the word, though a serious problem and a significant hindrance to development, is not the core issue. With or without aid money going into the wrong pockets, development projects get completed yet social and economic development does not happen.

Thus, the aid effectiveness issue is not simply about delivery. If we want to discuss corruption we will be nearer the heart of the matter if, instead of discussing dishonest behaviour, we broaden the term to mean the capacity of narrow elites to perpetuate their power and privilege at the expense of the ordinary citizens. That does not necessarily entail individual corruption but, to the extent that the inflow of aid expenditure benefits that elite and helps it hold onto power, it is indeed a corruption of the idea of development and the purposes of development aid.

Addressing aid effectiveness, then, means looking at the difference between development projects and expenditure on the one hand and development per se on the other. It means asking how projects and expenditure can happen successfully while development conspicuously doesn’t. The answers to these questions lead inevitably to conflict and power, and thus to governance. They thus not only highlight violent conflicts and state fragility as problems but reveal that solutions to these problems are rooted in politics.

In turn, that means that development practitioners have to get out of their comfortable technical and extended humanitarian space and into much more complex and difficult areas of engagement in poor countries.

Climate change: Global warming and climate change can no longer be seen as issues that are in a separate box from development. However quickly and impressively the world’s biggest and richest economies move onto a low carbon pathway (and there are numerous reasons to think the transformation will be far from quick), the benefits of slowing and even reversing global warming will take time to unfold, just as the problem revealed itself slowly to begin with. Accordingly, the substance of development in poor countries must adapt to face the impact of climate change.

The white paper rightly places the issue at the centre of UK policy on international development. What it does not fully grapple with is the social basis of adapting to climate change. While some parts of the necessary adaptation will be big infrastructural projects, such as river barrages, much of what is needed involves a multitude of small-scale actions – farmers changing crop cycles, seeds or crop choices, for example, or householders building their homes differently or in different places. This is only possible if the people who have to adapt understand the problem, buy into the changes, and themselves implement the process.

The key blockages to this process are precisely the same as those that arise when aid effectiveness is considered – the organisation and distribution of power. Where the system of power consists of rule by a narrow elite, ordinary people get blocked out of participating in key issues in their country. We could see adaptation projects being delivered on time yet adaptation not happening because the people are not participating.

Writ large, for poor countries, adapting to face the challenge of climate change means adapting development. If the problems in development are replicated in climate adaptation, the result will be to neglect basic survival needs and the consequences will be catastrophic.

The MDG conundrum: The Millennium Development Goals represent an international near-consensus on what development is and on how to express development aspirations. They cover some key dimensions of progress – poverty and hunger, education, child and maternal health, gender equality, HIV/AIDS, environmental sustainability and a global partnership for economic development – but not others such as peace and human rights. Most of them focus more on indicators than drivers of progress and the goals (except for the eighth on economic partnership) are broken down into quantitative targets.

The aim of fulfilling them all by 2015 is no longer regarded as realistic (if it ever was – sometimes I wonder). Some progress has been registered but some of it is more statistical than real and the MDGs offer perverse incentives to focus development aid on countries that are doing best and in which aid is an insignificant share of investment.

Of the poor countries that will fail worst, about two-third are hard hit by violent conflict. But while that links traditional development concerns with the sort of new focus that DFID now stands for, there is something deeper going on as well.

The development industry – in which DFID is one of the lead players – faces a disturbing paradox. In order to maintain public support for increasing expenditure on overseas development aid  it is important to identify and lay claim to successes. Yet hundreds of millions of people remain mired in poverty, and those hundreds of millions of people whose relative situation is better than 10, 20 or 30 years have, in the main benefitted from improved economic conditions and policies rather than from aid projects or other kinds of aid expenditure such as directly subsidising government budgets.

This is a good deal of what underlies the publicity-grabbing criticisms of development by Dambisa Moyo in her book Dead Aid. Although Moyo’s proposals for achieving development – cut off aid and sort out a few basic economic policies – do not amount to anything very compelling, there is a discomforting sense around that the critique is pretty sound: development aid is generously given, mostly doesn’t work in terms of achieving development (though it may succeed in more limited goals), and where development has occurred it has largely been for other reasons.

However, to deepen the paradox and place it beyond Moyo’s reach, it is far from clear that the benefit experienced by those very many people who are significantly better off than their parents adds up to development.

It is all pretty disconcerting for those whose lives are committed to improving the lives of others via the medium of international development assistance. This uncertainty – this discomfort about the comfort zone, if you like – is not something DFID as an institution expresses openly. Nor would I expect it to. But I sense it all around and I think it is a quiet driver of the attempt to find a new direction for development aid, thus the focus on climate, conflict, the state and politics.

The limits to change

Important as the white paper is and far-reaching too, it is a milestone in the current journey of development thinking, not the destination.

Signs that the change is limited are revealed in the continuing commitment to the MDGs despite most of the logic of the white paper going against such a generic and a-political approach.  It was obviously politically necessary for DFID to do that – the Gleneagles G-8 summit, which did so much to lock in the MDGs, was only in 2005, and there was no chance of the Labour government backing away from what it has claimed as a major achievement of its international leadership. But if DFID is looking for an approach to development assistance that confronts the political obstacles in the way of development, it will have to get away from the techno-centrism and chronologically-extended humanitarianism that characterise the MDGs, and sooner or later it will have to make that explicit.

Further signs of limitation can be seen in the way that “state-building” is depicted – very top down, heavy emphasis on the state as efficient tax collector and provider of security, with very little acknowledgement that representation and accountability are at the heart of how the state should function. Ignoring those functions while getting the coercive ones right is understandable in practice in the difficult circumstances in which peacebuilding and state-building must be carried out. But it is a conceptual mistake to write it that way because it makes people’s participation in the institutions of power into a second-order add-on. In some hands, that way round of putting it is going to be dangerous.

But the biggest indication of the limits to change so far lies in an absence. There is no new basic idea or theory of development. While the process of re-thinking has covered an encouraging amount of ground, the white paper’s idea of development remains the improvements in people’s conditions and in economic circumstances that are detailed in the Millennium Development Goals.

It is, I think, a very widely accepted idea of development. It can get the support of those who think development is essentially a matter of economic growth, and unite them with those who think it is essentially a matter of ending poverty, and add to them the supporters of all those important measures of progress such as improved health, education and gender equality. It seems like commonsense and furthermore there is no denying that in poor countries the goals of economic growth and improving people’s basic conditions are good.

But it is the wrong idea of development, it is misleading and it should be replaced.

Development: its goals and its meaning

What is development? A new book by Douglass North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry Weingast offers the license to argue that development is not economic growth or the alleviation of poverty. These good things along with others happen because of development but they do not offer an encompassing depiction of what development is. 

The book Violence and Social Orders* argues that world history can be understood in terms of the transition from what they call “limited access social orders” to”open access social orders”. I hazard the judgement that this is one of the most important books of this decade because it lives up to the vaulting ambition of its sub-title; it genuinely is a conceptual framework for interpreting recorded human history.

A handful of rich democratic countries are open access social orders with equality before the law, formal but real equality of opportunity (e.g., in education), impersonal administration of justice, institutions of government that function on the basis of the rule of law, contract laws that are enforceable and fair, a rich democratic culture with an active, diverse and independent civil society, and a widely held set of beliefs about the the inclusion and equality of all citizens. There are not many of these – about 30 – and they are new entrants onto the global historical stage – about the last 200 years. They are the richest and in human as well as economic terms the most successful social orders in history and today.

All other countries are limited access social orders in which some, most or all of the conditions of open access are missing. This is the predominant form of social order in recorded history; it is the default form of the state and thus the authors also call it the “natural” state. As a category, it contains a variety of forms that differ significantly in political organisation, economic capacity and human well-being – the difference between 18th century England and 12th century England, for example.

Some of the features of some limited access social orders are the same as some of the features of the open access social orders but, because they lack the full range, they are different and should not be mistaken for open access. For example, governing institutions can function on the basis of the rule of law, yet civil society has no autonomy; or civil society’s diversity and energy may not be matched by the impersonal administration of justice. It is, in short, important not to mistake the existence of a few features – such as reasonably fair elections and a largely honest police force – for the rich reality of an open access order.

The book is a political economy of historical development. The authors are interested in such tasks as explaining England, France’s and the Netherlands’ early emergence onto the threshold of open access and how what followed was determined. Through this they throw light on some of the biggest issues in world history. Repeatedly they show that focusing on either economics or politics alone entails missing out on how development happens and what it is.

The development doorstep

Violence and Social Orders sets out the “doorstep conditions” for countries moving from limited to open access. In brief they are

  1. The rule of law for elites;
  2. Public and private organisations that outlive individual founders, office-holders and beneficiaries (“perpetually lived organisations” in the authors’ terminology);
  3. Consolidated control of the military (rather than control of the means of violence being dispersed throughout the elite).

All three doorstep conditions must be met in order for the transition to be accomplished and, according to the authors, the historical pattern is in that 1-2-3 order.

Development and development assistance

So now we have got there. Development is the transition from one social order to another. Development assistance is helping that happen. That means helping countries develop the doorstep conditions and, once there, letting the further change unfold as they transit across the doorstep.

The authors emphasise that there is no teleology that makes the open access social order an inevitable outcome. And historically there is no sign that English feudal magnates looking after their property rights through war and slanted law in the 15th and 16th centuries thought they were laying the foundations of open access. Historically the doorstep has been reached and crossed through a concatenation of circumstances, key among which are developments within the social elite that favour a shift towards what we would regard as modern, law-based, impersonal relations in matters of governance and commerce. This happens if it is economically beneficial without being politically destabilising.

Violence and Social Orders does much to explain why conflict and the nature of power are at the core of figuring out how societies develop. The arguments of North, Wallis and Weingast implicitly support and extend the case that we can only support development by engaging in political interactions with communities, leaders, organisations and institutions in recipient countries. They come at the issue from a wholly different angle from DFID’s and, since the book is not a policy document or a strategy, they don’t try to answer all the questions or fill in the details. But their insights offer an exhilarating opportunity to build on the work that DFID has done in making a critique of current development practice and outlining aspects of an alternative approach. They show us a direction to go so the job can be completed.

The inevitability of change

I started this post with a flat out prediction that development thinking will change. I stand by that: it will change because it has to. It is under too many pressures not to.

The MDGs are supposed to be achieved by 2015 and they won’t be despite an admirable effort of expenditure. The expenditure commitments now face tighter economic circumstances and likely cuts in public spending over the next several years: either the commitment will be reduced or, if it is maintained, there will need to be a new narrative to support it. Harping on about the same old moral case will not suffice in the face of mounting evidence that the MDG commitment is not working. There will need to be new pragmatic, evidence-based arguments to accompany the moral case. This will lead to closer scrutiny and that will inevitably both highlight current flaws and produce new ideas about what development is and how to support it. 

DFID’s admirable white paper blows the old comfort-zone consensus apart. It gets us a head start on closer scrutiny and new ideas. 

But what the content of those new ideas will be, the actual endpoint of the argument – that is far from decided. The outcome of change is much less clear than the inevitability of change.

DFID has made a start that is impressive in its own terms and, when you consider the pressures on this government, quite extraordinary, even if incomplete in ways I highlighted above. 

Now Violence and Social Orders offers a view of the next step. It offers the core ideas out of which we can get the discussion going on a new, clearer and more robust concept of development. Once we are clear about what development is, we will be well placed to figure out anew how best to support it.


* Douglass C North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry R Weingast, Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (2009, Cambridge University Press).

2 thoughts on “Development thinking develops – DFID’s white paper and what comes next

  1. Dear Dan

    Are you turning into an aid pessimist? To be sure, aid is only one of the contributing factors to economic and social development and the recent turnaround in Africa is due to a variety of influences. But aid programs have been an important part of the story. Botswana has grown at 5% a year for over 15 years and it is the largest recipient of aid in Africa. Rapid growth in Uganda and Tanzania was greatly facilitated by aid. Aid has improved access to clean water, enhanced access to education and protected millions of children from malnutrition and disease. Aid has consolidated the peace in Mozambique, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

    Most aid pessimists rely on studies that have examined the impact of aid over short periods and included humanitarian aid (which is negatively correlated with growth because it is given in times of crisis). But the Centre for Global Development has shown that correcting for these distortions aid has had a positive impact on growth . Every dollar of aid raises output by 1.6 dollars in present value terms. The correlation is robust.

    Politics are of course a critical ingredient of development but external engagement in politics can have massive unintended consequences. And what about the politics of aid on the supply side? The preposterous notion that rich countries’ governments have been generous to the poor countries of the world has been conclusively rebutted by policy research.

    Aid is only a fraction of the costs imposed on poor countries by trade protectionism, trade cartels, restrictive immigration rules and the destruction of the global commons related to the unsustainable energy policies of rich countries. Nor did donors live up to their Gleneagles commitments of an extra $50 billion by 2010.

    Based on current donors’ intentions DAC estimates a funding gap of about $37 billion in 2007 dollars in 2010 unless additional commitments are made. The aid shortfall for Africa is especially large. Aid to Africa was supposed to increase by $25 billion by 2010. But only one third of the donors have achieved the 50% increment that had been promised.

  2. From John Marks, Search for Common Ground:
    I found the DFID paper to be excellent. Unfortunately, however, it almost totally focuses on governments and multi-lateral organizations and mostly leaves out the work of international NGOs like Search for Common Ground. My colleagues and I believe the kind of activities that we and other NGOs carry out is an extremely important component of peacebuilding.

    We would define the missing element as bottom-up peacebuilding that is implemented across entire countries. Our descriptive term for this is “societal conflict prevention.” It involves creating an environment in a particular country so that there is popular support for the actual negotiation of peace agreements and so that even the most contentious problems and differences can be dealt with, without violence. In sum, we believe that peacemaking needs to be both a top-down and a bottom-up process, and that, if the latter is not included, agreements are much less likely to take hold. We are convinced that agreements at the governmental level are necessary, but usually not sufficient, and the DFID paper does not, in my view, capture this.

    The study does, nevertheless, briefly mention bottom-up, peacebuilding, without defining it, when it cites the work of Safer World and Kenyan Concerned Citizens for Peace (CCP) to establish reconciliation structures in Kenya. Even here, there is no mention of the key role the media and popular culture can play in changing mass attitudes and behaviors; nor is there any sense of a comprehensive or “societal” approach to peacemaking that can be catalyzed and enhanced by international NGOs like Search. We very much believe that this kind of work should be included as an important part of the overall toolbox for conflict prevention – in addition to the contribution of governments and international bodies. Click here for a short paper I have written on “Societal Conflict Prevention,” with particular emphasis on how it worked in Burundi.

    Lastly, I believe the paper should cite as an impediment to peacebuilding the increasing trend of donors, including DFID, to place a growing part of their resources in trust funds controlled by agencies like UNDP and the World Bank. Unfortunately, these agencies are often unresponsive and bureaucratic. For example, earlier this year we finally received actual funding for a conflict prevention project in an Asisan country that had been approved two years earlier. While everyone would hope that multi-lateral organizations would function better and that incidents like this one would not happen, they repeatedly do. National donors, by putting more and more eggs in multi-lateral baskets would seem to be making it more and more difficult to carry out targeted, timely peacebuilding.

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