How much will UK development policy change under a Conservative government?

The Conservative Party is set fair to win next year’s UK general election. What will happen to development policy? The Conservatives published a Green Paper in the summer, shortly after the government put out its White Paper on development, to which I gave a warm review. In this rather long post I extend the same courtesy to the Conservatives. Overall judgement: much to welcome but some reservations because the document is conservative in the wrong way.   

Backing development

New Labour invented the Department for International Development (DFID), breaking it out of the Foreign Office in 1997, passing the International Development Act, refocusing and boosting the UK’s overseas development assistance.

Twelve years on, the Conservative Green Paper signals Conservative acceptance that that reform is here to stay. 

It talks of the “utterly compelling” “moral case for tackling poverty” (page 7) that is also a pragmatic British interest in an inter-dependent world. It promises to keep aid separate from commercial interests and focused on poverty reduction. It commits a future Conservative government to work towards the Millennium Development Goals and achieve the target of spending 0.7 per cent of national income on development aid. While acknowledging that “some aid in the past has been wasted or stolen,” the Green Paper emphatically declares that “well-spent aid has worked miracles” (p1 & p25). 

Taming DFID

The Green Paper’s critique of Labour’s policy is carefully nuanced. It makes essentially the same critique of the international development system. In sum: there have been real achievements but Labour has a “scatter gun” approach to aid (p12), lacks rigour about impact, with too little feedback and accountability (pp 9-13) and muddled objectives.

Continuing with the Conservative critique: Labour focuses on inputs rather than outputs and is impressed by spending rather than performance, so there is “sometimes an incentive to get money out of the door, rather than to ensure it is spent well” (p12). Labour is rightly determined to work with governments in developing countries so as to improve public services but this sometimes leads it to turn a blind eye to those governments’ worst aspects.

“Good intentions,” says the Green paper, “trumps clear thinking” (p12).

Moving on from Labour’s mistakes, the Green Paper takes a look at DFID’s institutional culture – “often more like that of an aid agency than a Department of State” and “lacks business sense” (p13). The document promises that DFID staff under a Conservative government will behave and think like civil servants, not NGO activists.

There is also a background drumbeat in the Green Paper, that “DFID’s growing financial muscle” (p12) has made it a bit big for its boots. Under the Conservatives, DFID will remain a separate department but be better coordinated with the Foreign Office and the rest of government (pp 56-57). Some may suspect that “coordinated” is a polite term for “subordinated” but the Green Paper authors would probably insist that they are talking about a recalibrated division of labour with the Foreign Office taking a clearer policy lead. Time will tell which version is more accurate but, certainly, the Green Paper offers heart to critics concerned that DFID has become an independent fiefdom with its own foreign policy.

Put it this way: twelve years ago, New Labour gave birth to DFID; next year the Tories plan to introduce some discipline and make sure it behaves as part of the family before it becomes too much the uppity teenager.  

Institutional culture and some worries

There is plenty in this critique with which many people of varying political stripes will agree. And if some of the language about DFID’s DNA having too much NGO and too little Whitehall causes some discomfort in DFID itself, that is not necessarily bad. Big institutions can do with a shake-up from time to time to clear the cobwebs away.

As to injecting some Whitehall or business spores into the DFID DNA, if I were part of the Tory front bench team on development I would worry about the realism of the idea. Nothing is easier than smartening up and looking like a civil servant, and nothing harder than changing institutional culture. Come the third or fourth year in government, the odds favour superficial adjustment over real change.

And since I am not part of the Tory front bench team, let me add my real concern here. DFID is at its strongest when it deals with issues and problems in development policy and developing countries as issues and problems in development, rather than as bureaucratic objectives or boxes to tick. At its weakest, it gets all tick-boxy and Whitehall-world complacent.

I worry that when the Conservative team criticises what it sees as the NGO culture in DFID, it is the engagement and commitment of staff members at all levels of the organisation that they are taking issue with. And I worry that if they put pressure on engagement and commitment and the accompanying spiky attitudes, NGO-ish atmosphere and casual clothes, they risk replacing those positive qualities with a bureaucratic approach that, in the event and with greater cause, will annoy them even more.

Three focal policy areas

The Green Paper focuses on three areas: value for money given in aid, wealth creation, and conflict and security.

It is good to focus, of course, but it does sometimes lead to odd results. Here, strangely, commitments on tackling climate change are included as part of the section on getting value for money, as if the main problem climate change imposes in developing countries is hampering aid delivery.

Mind you, the core message in this sub-section that “Action to tackle and adapt to climate change will permeate international development policy” is wholly welcome, as is the commitment to ensure that “the UK’s position in international climate change negotiations is consistent with the interests of the world’s poorest countries” (pp 33-34). Yet if the response to climate change should permeate development policy – which, by the way, is what I think too, because adapting to climate change in developing countries can only mean something if it means adapting development – then it is strange and unconvincing to find it wrapped up in a couple of pages and parked under efficiency.

Value for money

That said, the Green paper scores heavily on the issue of value for money. The overall proposition is that aid must be spent effectively, that transparency and accountability will enhance its effectiveness, that both are in any case essential for democratic governance when big spending is under way, and that measuring success should focus on outputs and impact rather than inputs and successfully moving money around.

If anybody wants to argue against those propositions, I won’t be joining her/him.

Under this heading, one way a Conservative government will get value for money is by focusing the UK’s international aid on fewer than the 108 countries to whom it goes now. The document rightly abstains from saying how many countries will get it, though it does commit to ending UK aid to China, and it says a Conservative government will strengthen links with Commonwealth countries, implying though not promising more aid to Commonwealth developing countries.

Wealth creation

So: in what aspect of development policy would you expect something really distinctive to come from the Conservatives? With a political party that believes in the power of the private sector to contribute to the common good, believes indeed that a strong private sector is an integral part of the common weal, you would probably expect their development team to come up with something special on the creation of wealth.

Well it doesn’t.

This is the most pedestrian part of the document. It gives scant attention to the role of entrepreneurs. When it covers the need to harness private enterprise, it focuses on employing people from a business background in DFID, mentions Unilever and Vodafone, offers “government-led trade delegations”, promises to examine DFID procurement policies in developing countries, praises the Grameen Bank and micro-finance in general and offers to take a look at “providing matched funding for peer-to-peer loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries” (pp 38-41). All reasonable stuff, nothing to disagree with, but it doesn’t make the little hills dance.

Why are the examples all international big business instead of developing country enterprises and business people? There are plenty of them. Where is the untidy energy and creativity of entrepreneurs of all sizes? Where are the dilemmas that such entrepreneurial activity creates and what are the ways to square them?

And once business has been dealt with in a few flat pages the rest of the section becomes a perfectly standard sectoral canter through agriculture, infrastructure, health, education and trade. Again, many good and proper things said but it is not exciting. I don’t know if anybody else is surprised by that but I certainly was.

Conflict and security

The Green Paper is by no means unique in focusing on conflict and security issues in developing countries. The government’s White Paper dwelt on them at length, as does Climate, Conflict and Capital, this year’s Norwegian government White Paper.  Next year’s World Bank World Development Report will do so too. The focus on conflict as a development problem is a general trend that is music to my ears. Some good clear things are said, emphasising that “Peace and stability are a pre-requisite of development” (p52) and that to respond to these challenges a Conservative government will work multilaterally (p53).

By focusing more on Afghanistan and Iraq than anywhere else and by committing to look for opportunities to increase aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan (pp 57-60), the document perhaps lays itself open to the criticism of allowing those two conflicts to be regarded as implicitly typical of conflict situations that DFID faces. In fact, in many ways and for many reasons, they are a-typical when put alongside conflict-affected countries in West and Central Africa, the Horn and South Asia, where UK forces have not been directly involved in war, and in which both the adversaries and conflict issues are very different.

However, having heard the Conservative Shadow Minister for Development, Andrew Mitchell, speak several times in the last few weeks, I don’t think he himself falls into this trap. In fact, the gloss he puts on the issue is quite close to where DFID now stands – grounds for thinking that a Conservative government will not necessarily be trapped into a costly policy in Afghanistan and Iraq at the expense of a proper focus on other conflict-wracked countries.

My fingers were tightly crossed as I wrote that.

Re-shaping the institutions

As well as the desire to have DFID be “more like a department for development in the developing world and a little less like an aid agency” (p57), the Green paper has some things to say about institutional structure. They mostly come out in the section on conflict and security. Two key ones concern the Stabilisation Unit (previously the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Unit) and the relationship between DFID and the Foreign Office. 

The plan is to strengthen the Stabilisation Unit, which will report directly to a new Cabinet committee – the National Security Council – and be the main driver of post-conflict reconstruction policy (p58). Presumably (though not explicitly) this means it will be equipped with the necessary resources, otherwise it won’t drive anything.  It will presumably not be a fully-fledged new department but be centrally placed to lead on some conflict-related issues because of a direct connected to a cabinet body. It looks as if the Stabilisation Unit will again be about conflicts where British forces are involved, so the Green Paper’s proposals here do not address development aid to other conflict -affected countries.

The Green paper diagnoses a strained relationship between DFID and the Foreign Office and sympathises with the view that it is too often “second-guessing the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on matters of policy” (p12). In public, Andrew Mitchell has been explicit that improving the relationship means the Foreign Office is to lead on policy while DFID provides the expertise and funds when policy says it is time to provide aid.

Two questions arise here. The Green Paper does not address either one satisfactorily.

Q1: Where does the knowledge lie?

It seems appropriate for the Foreign Office to lead on foreign policy but does it have the staff with the right expertise to make calls about when to use aid in conflict-affected countries? There is no clear distinction between a policy decision about when and an implementation decision about what and how. In broad terms, deciding when inevitably means at least a framework decision about what aid to give and how to provide it. If this knowledge resides in the Foreign Office, I want to know where it is and why it hasn’t been used.

There is a good case to make that despite a lot of effort DFID still lacks a broad and deep enough expertise to handle governance and conflict questions in all the fragile states in which it is engaged. But the response to that is not to tilt back to traditional Foreign Office expertise, which, while formidable, is differently focused; it is to keep increasing knowledge and capacity all across Whitehall.

Q2: How will we characterise DFID’s role?

The Green Paper emphasises that, “Development is about much more than just aid” (p56) and wants DFID to be a department for development (p57), not an aid agency.

All well and good but the thought arises, if DFID is to be shorn of its autonomy in policy and concentrate on implementation while the Foreign Office has the policy lead, DFID is by definition going to be more like an aid agency and less like a development department.

This is a pretty large circle that the Green Paper does not square. In power, the Conservatives will have to or the conservatism of institutions may neutralise the policy changes they want.

What will change

The Green Paper covers a lot of ground, much of it very persuasively. The most energetic section is the first one on value for money. This is the one that seems to be written with passion – a wholly laudable passion to make development aid work for the people it is supposed to be working for while also making its use accountable to those who provide the funds. It is a democratic passion, buttressed by solid arguments on transparency, accountability, impact and cost effectiveness.

All other things being equal (e.g., no surprises in Conservative ministerial appointments), I would expect the biggest change under a new government to be in a strongly recharged focus on impact, assessment and accountability. On wealth creation and on conflict and security, the distance between government policy and the Conservatives’ policy is in details and institutional set-up, not in basic approach.

It is significant also that this passion is mobilised around aid projects. The downside of this is that it may well buttress an over-technical approach to development assistance that is, among other things, at odds with the aim of making DFID less of an aid agency.

Development and politics 

The government White Paper this year stressed that political engagement must be at the heart of development assistance. In some parts of the Green Paper and in some of what Andrew Mitchell has said recently in public, there are echoes of the White Paper’s approach but elsewhere are contradictory tones and sentiments.

For the Labour government, the White Paper marked a significant departure for UK policy. It knowingly challenged orthodox opinion in the international development community, specifically around conflict and politics. And it set out an ambitious stall on climate change.

For the Conservative opposition, the Green Paper rows back a fair way from the government’s radicalism. Overall the model of development assistance it offers is comfortingly mainstream. The document is, in fact, quite conservative.

Therein lies the problem.

Development aid in difficulties

Today’s model of development aid is in trouble, especially because of the state of the economy but also because it has been less effective than it seemed to promise when the Millennium Development Goals were adopted. Economic data indicate this is the longest British recession for over 50 years. I write about Conservative policy against a backdrop of the Conservatives’ commitment to cut public spending. When the budget knife falls at home, voices will ask why services in Britain are declining but we keep wasting money on people in other countries.

To make the case that it is not waste we need a strong narrative of development and how to support it. The problem is that the old narrative is losing its persuasive power. We cannot go on as if development aid is politically neutral, a chronologically extended form of humanitarian aid, as it were.

For a new narrative, we need to understand development as a process in which a society develops the institutions, rules and norms that allow it to pursue the exploitation of its natural and economic resources without recourse to violence and arbitrary authority. And then we need to figure out how to support that process. Answers on how to do that are desperately needed; the debate is well under way but far short of being concluded.

I am intensely pleased that the Conservative Party has committed itself to continuing to expand development assistance. There is much to welcome. But it has not yet done any better than the government – in fact, it has done somewhat worse – in the essential task of shaping a new way of understanding and supporting international development.

2 thoughts on “How much will UK development policy change under a Conservative government?

  1. Thanks for an insightful analytical review of the Conservative Party’s Green Paper. It is comforting to read that the despite ideological divides the UK’s overall commitments to assisting developing countries to address their humanitarian and development challenges are likely to be maintained. Development requires even more political support than ever in view of the negative impacts of the global recession on the developed economies.

  2. Thanks from me as well. I was struck in my time at the OECD that DFID was the bilateral that best fit two crucial criteria for a development agency, a hard head – the hardest in the business — and a soft heart. It would be a shame to confuse DFID’s soft heart – what you rightly refer to as its culture of commitment – with a soft head.

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