After the UK election: international development and foreign policy

So 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?

Within the coalition

The election campaign and haggling over the coalition agreement were, inevitably, all about the UK and not so much about how it relates to the rest of the world. But it remains a fundamental role of a state to represent the national interest, policies and preferences in world affairs and the new Foreign secretary, William Hague, has already visited Hillary Clinton in Washington. The new government will also have to take a position in key discussions within 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; the gulf between the two parties on Europe is deeper and older than on any of the other issues over which they aired significant differences during the campaign. It is potentially more troubling for the coalition than immigration, Trident-replacement, nuclear power or even public spending and economic recovery.

Within the 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 (OK – now somebody can email in the link to an article on p12 of a broadsheet but I don’t recall a word on it during the leaders’ debates, for example). This is partly because the country turns inward at election time and at least as importantly because the major parties’ positions reveal a lot of agreement.

In blog posts last year I reviewed the development policies of Labour and Conservatives in some detail. The approach of the Liberal-Democrats, to whom I have not extended the same courtesy, fits broadly into the same territory as their rivals. Development policy is an area of major consensus albeit with significant divergences below the headlines.

One of those divergences is about the coordination of development and foreign 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 coordinate 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 organisational culture

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

  1. Organisational culture emanates from the institution itself and is largely unspoken and ambient. You can tackle it all right but it can be hard for the newcomer to shift the attitudes of the long term staff, especially when the newcomer might be history after a mere 2-3 years for any one of a number of reasons – success (so he’s promoted), failure (so it’s demotion to the parliamentary rank-and-file), the economy (so the government falls), politics (moving on as part of a deal with a different faction of the Conservatives or a tweak in the agreement with the Liberal-Democrats). The incentives for resisting the reform effort and dragging feet increase with the number of possible reasons why it might not last.
  2. An important part of the critique is about surface phenomena – about how DFID looks and feels. This is by no means unimportant. It has much deeper practical effect than might at first seem obvious. Whether DFID staff in offices around the world feel and behave as part of the UK’s official overseas presence has a big effect on how priorities are assessed, which of a wide range of UK policies set in London are taken to be the most important, and how success is defined and gauged. But 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 sobre suits for the women. It’s that easy and it takes considerable effort from the top to go further especially when the top has an agenda that is filled with poverty, conflict and climate change. It’s not inevitable but the odds are that the leadership loses focus on slow-going institutional change and and settles for the cosmetic change.
  3. DFID is a complex institution. Some aspects of the ethos in some corners of it are unattractive (a tendency to be complacent and patronising); perhaps in some places it’s too casual and not business-like enough (not my perception but, since it’s a complex institution, perhaps I simply haven’t seen those parts of it); and in much of the organisation, the ethos is admirable. 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.
  4. 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 (which is probable – on this, see my next post), DFID will need to retain a considerable capacity for political analysis and engagement.
  5. 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 – in the values and attitudes, in the way it thinks, plans and goes about its work, in the way it gauges success, in what it rewards in tis staff and its partners and counterparts – 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 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, since that’s what he seems to want to do, 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. A handful of get-togethers with senior civil servants, a couple of go-getters from the private sector, weekend retreats in the home counties – these won’t work either.

If Andrew Mitchell and his team are going to set about the sort of institutional change in DFID that they said in opposition they were aiming for, they are going to need to set out  programme of change that has at least the following features:

  1. Strategic clarity: changing the institution is, in its detailed work, largely a matter of forms, structures and procedures but the direction has to come from their relationship to the content of DFID’s mission. 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 that strategic direction is sustained, much else follows naturally. 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 and muddled 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 will remain declaratory unless it gets 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. Professional formation, career structure and organisational structure in the FCO thus requires careful attention for this revision in DFID to work.

Of course, if the idea of changing DFID in this way is dropped, the changes in the FCO are then moot.

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

2 thoughts on “After the UK election: international development and foreign policy

  1. Always a pleasure to read you, very interesting analysis. Just wanted to mention: this is not a peacetime coalition. UK is at war, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, how can everybody pretend we are not?

  2. “if indeed the idea is to run down DFID analytical capacity”… I sure hope that is not the case! Although it would be consistent. There are hints that the Conservatives would like to outsource (to the private sector and NGOs) the “doing” as much as possible. However, DFID is already struggling to manage its responsibilities and money with its current staff, and has been criticised on the one hand for high overheads and on the other for not adequately exercising due diligence. If it is to continue to be successful (and it has been, among development agencies) it needs to have in-house expertise and knowledge about the environments it is working in.

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