After the UK election (2): Three questions on international development

What does the advent of the new government mean for UK policy on international development?

It’s a policy area in which the UK is a major player. Not only is the Department for International Development a major bilateral funder, it has also offered significant intellectual leadership role over the last decade.  And it is a field that matters. Looked at moderately broadly, international development includes, touches on or is partly determined by climate change, the risk of pandemics, trade, peacebuilding and international security. And while the UK government is not ultimately a paragon of joined-up and consistent approaches across the development board, it has made some progress in linking up the different parts of government and government policy that have an impact on developing countries.

The common ground

Last year I did fairly detailed reviews of the development policies of Labour and the Conservatives. There are many ways in which they are aligned with each other. The approach of the Liberal-Democrats fits broadly into the same territory. The ground of discernible consensus in 2009’s policy statements covered at least the following high ground:

  • Morality and self-interest unite to construct an overwhelming case in favour of providing assistance to international development in poor countries;
  • The level of spending on development should rise to 0.7% of Gross National Income by 2013;
  • The UN’s Millennium Development Goals set the framework and targets of international development efforts;
  • Though not mentioned among the MDGs, peace and security issues and the political dimension of development have to be engaged with if development efforts are to succeed;
  • Crafting a comprehensive response to climate change that both gets the problem under control over time and helps poorer countries to adapt to the effects of climate change have become a key component of development strategy.

Despite those broad areas of agreement, there are differences below the headlines and there are also some issues of nuance and emphasis that may presage important differences if not in declared policy then in its implementation.

In the new government the Cabinet position of Secretary of State (Andrew Mitchell) and the non-Cabinet posts of Minister of State (Alan Duncan) and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Stephen O’Brien) are all held by Conservatives. Now the two coalition partners stress that they have a joint programme for government, so the Liberal Democrats are accountable even for areas of policy where they have no ministers, and the Lib-Dems did secure some important points in development policy during the negotiation of the coalition agreement. It’s nonetheless inevitable that the key questions about how development policy will unfold under the new government are primarily about the Conservatives’ preferences.

Q1. Spending

The government is not only committing itself to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas development assistance (ODA) by 2013 but, following a practice of legal self-binding that Labour set, intends to introduce a law to ensure it meets the target. This is a Lib-Dem win: the Conservatives were against the idea of a legally binding target until now even though they supported the target itself.

This commitment may provide the answer to the question in pretty short order but it is nonetheless worth asking the question: is the 0.7% commitment durable?

During the past year and a half, with the Conservatives committing themselves to the internationally agreed target of 0.7% and the economic crisis unfolding, there was a steady background drumbeat from some party circles along the lines that, whatever got said in opposition, in government it would be different. As the cuts in other areas of public spending started to bite, would it be possible, they sceptically wondered, to keep on sending large sums of taxpayers’ money ‘over there’?

Is it likely that this summer we will both see an emergency budget with the first of the promised cuts and a bill being laid before parliament to keep increasing ODA?

If that’s an unlikely pairing, we can suppose the bill will be delayed. The coalition agreement says on the outside of the back cover, “The deficit reduction programme takes precedence over any of the other measures in this agreement, and the speed of implementation of any measures that have a cost to the public finances will depend on decisions to be made in the Comprehensive Spending Review.”

The question is not about the arithmetic of the budget but rather the political signals and symbolism. Does the government think that Britons can tighten their belts at home without also tightening the purse strings abroad? If these things are possible at the same time, they can go ahead; if it’s difficult to get to get the symbolic timing right at the outset, then time passing won’t make it any easier.

The big spending review will report in the autumn – probably not a good time to bring the bill on 0.7% forward. But if it’s delayed till next year, as bigger cuts loom, circumstances will be even less propitious – and less favourable again as the cuts bite into public sector services and jobs. It might not be until economic recovery is well established that it feels straightforward to bring the bill in; that might be a couple of years hence, not far short of the target date of 2013 – and then what would be the point?

In short, the coalition government stands rather close to the top of the slippery slope down to Sometimenever Land where good political intentions go to fall asleep.

It needs to be emphasised that the government has already answered this question with great clarity in the coalition agreement, which, alas, is not enough to lay the question to rest. That will happen only when the bill is actually brought before parliament.

Q2: Conflict and security

Over the past four or five years the case that it is necessary to address conflict and security issues in order for development to go forward has moved from the margins to the mainstream. Many of the bigger development NGOs have resisted this – and some still do – on the rather odd grounds that it ‘securitises’ development. The truth is that development and the issues of conflict and security are inseparable from the outset. This is clear if you look at it as an historical process (as traced in Violence and Social Orders by North, Wallis and Weingast, or with different emphases by Charles Tilly  in Coercion, capital and European states, or with greater differences in  studies such as Liah Greenfeld’s Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity).* It is equally clear if you look through the lens of human security and consider the way in which development and security are preconditions for each other, as encapsulated in the formulation of the parallel freedoms from want and from fear by the UN Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change that was established by Kofi Annan.

The increasing depth and breadth of the recognition that how a country is governed and whether it is stable and peaceful are core determinants of whether its people will find prosperity and the society will develop has been a welcome feature of the last half decade. The last government’s 2009 development white paper was a major milestone in setting out the importance of engaging with politics and addressing conflict in order to assist development.

The Conservative opposition embraced the same argument but there was a difference.

When their green paper was published shortly after Labour’s white paper, I pointed out in my review of it (24 October 2009) that while there was material in it about the relationship between security and development, most of it focused on the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are wholly un-typical of the kind of insecurity that haunts and undermines development prospects in many developing countries. I also noted that when I had had the opportunity to query Andrew Mitchell – then the shadow minister for development – about this, he had insisted that the importance of the peace and conflict issues were not confined to the high profile, high octane cases of Afghanistan and Iraq where British forces were or had been directly engaged in combat. The issues were, he said, just as pressing albeit in different forms in a range of developing countries afflicted by conflict, insecurity and poor governance.

But the full coalition agreement published today contains only two reference to conflict and security issues in the international development section: one is to announce support for an international treaty “to limit the sale of arms to dangerous regimes” and the other is to promise “a more integrated approach to post-conflict reconstruction where the British military is involved.”

This is not the broad concept of insecurity and conflict that Mitchell talked about in opposition. The coalition agreement’s version is narrow both in that it is confined to places where British armed forces are involved, which is not many, and in its focus on post-conflict reconstruction. No mention of preventing the initial slide into violent conflict. Now “post-conflict reconstruction” can be treated in a relatively broad way, but it also provides a license for narrowness. It is possible and even normal to focus it only onto physical and economic rebuilding without looking at broader peacebuilding needs. And the very word “reconstruction” tends to distract attention from the need not just to reconstruct what was there before, which took the country into war, but actually to build something new. Nor is there any mention here of the problem of development in circumstances of bad governance and fragile states.

I am very readily aware that the coalition programme is a document dealing in headlines and broad categories. But the challenge of assisting development in fragile and conflict-affected circumstances, where the people are assailed not only by poverty but also by arbitrary governance and rampant insecurity – this is not a detail in international development policy, it is a central challenge.

So the second question on development policy is, what happened to the conflict analysis and the governance agenda?

Q3: A sustainable justification

And that brings us to the third question. Re-reading last year’s Conservative green paper on development, I was struck again that there is a genuine enthusiasm for development assistance in these pages and for getting it right and equally that the examples that are taken to show how development assistance can work are projects.

The problem, to be blunt, is that countries do not develop on the basis of development projects.

Development projects can be delivered on time and have the expected impact in terms of literacy or numbers of people immunised – yet development does not happen because the overall patterns of power do not change and a small elite continues to thrive while (and sometimes by) holding the mass of the population back. In these circumstances, these projects can be extremely important but that importance lies in human terms – in the prevention of disease, the alleviation of misery or the expansion of opportunity for those individuals and groups lucky enough to be beneficiaries. If there is a theory of change connected to these projects it is simply that if there were enough such projects, everybody would benefit and then…

And then, unless the distribution of power altered, the country’s development would still be held back.

To make this point a little too bluntly, 0.7% of UK GNI’s worth of projects plus an integrated approach to post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan do not add up to a persuasive justification for the government’s commitment to continue spending generously on ODA.

And as I have argued in previous posts, a new and sustainable justification for continued ODA is badly needed. The need arises partly for reasons I outlined above in discussing the juxtaposition of domestic spending cuts with ODA increases. Partly, it’s because the MDGs are not going to be met and in some places the shortfall compared to the goals is going to be extreme. And partly it’s because new challenges are unfolding – the combination of the consequences of climate change and growing population is already generating stresses that many states are simply unable to cope with.

So the third question is about the need to identify a new explanation, a new narrative of development that sustains a new argument for supporting it through ODA and in other ways. The answer would be easier if the new government were to revisit the conflict and security issues in development, re-focus on them, broaden them from the artificially narrow terms of the published coalition programme and put them higher up the development agenda again. And this reformulated narrative of development and of assisting development would itself make the arguments for a law to spend 0.7% of GNI on ODA more credible.

* Douglass C North, John Joseph Wallis & Barry Weingast, Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cmbridge University Press, 2009); Charles Tilly, Coercion, capital and European states: 990-1992 (Cambridge Ma & Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1992); Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Cambridge Ma: Harvard University Press, 1992).

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