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DFID at 18 years of age: how should a young adult behave?

May 8, 2015

The Department for International Development (DFID) turns 18 this year. If this week’s general election had taken place later in the year, it would have had a chance to vote. But beyond voting, the transition from adolescent to adult is marked by other factors in life: the need to take responsibility for oneself and others, the need to mix energy and ambition with seeking and taking advice from those who perhaps know what you don’t, and to explore and develop relationships. In this blog, I look at DFID in relation to these factors, as it enters adulthood.

Energy and ambition

Like most young people, DFID has enormous reserves of energy: a numerically depleted but still highly capable cadre of staff, and something like £11 bn of funds to spend every year – a figure more or less guaranteed to rise annually at least in line with inflation. Looking ahead, as privileged young people no doubt do, our eighteen year-old must be asking: what will I achieve during my life? For DFID, the answer must surely be pretty clear:

  • To respond, and help others respond to humanitarian disasters across the world so that children, women and men can survive, prosper and crucially, ‘build back better’, so that they are more resilient and less vulnerable to future problems, whether naturally- or man-made.
  • To support the flourishing of people and societies in difficult places. This means, surely, contributing to help people make progress so they have increasingly equitable access to the means for peace and prosperity through:
    • Legitimate politics and the opportunity to participate in decisions which affect them
    • Sustained income and the opportunity to accumulate economic assets
    • Justice
    • Safety and security
    • The opportunity to stay healthy and build their knowledge and skills.

With this set of long-term goals, our eighteen-year old has a yardstick against which to judge her decisions and actions. They also seem to be in keeping with the manifesto commitments of the Conservatives, who look likely to lead the new UK government.


But she is only eighteen after all, and will need plenty of advice about how to pursue this vision. From whom should she seek advice?

For all too long, many of DFID’s teams in the countries where it operates have become stuck in an endless round of internal bureaucracy and meetings, and meetings with fellow donors and international agencies, diplomats, host government representatives, a small and unrepresentative sample of ‘usual suspect’ ‘local voices’ based in the capital, and international visitors. It is rather as if our eighteen-year old spends most of her time with her peer group, and not enough time with those with a different set of experiences and perspectives. Somehow she needs to seek opportunities to hear from a much wider variety of local voices, from across civil society, from across the country and its various gender and other identity groups including the downtrodden and those who tread them down. She probably also needs to speak with historians and anthropologists, with artists and journalists, and with people who have already tried to make the changes she wants to support, to find out what has worked and why. I’d suggest that DFID staff also need to spend a good five years or more in their postings, so they accumulate enough knowledge and wisdom from others, to be able to make effective decisions. And finally, DFID needs to rebalance its spending so that staff have sufficient time to network, and play a more hands-on role in programmes: that means either less programming or more staff.


As every young adult knows, when you are old enough to vote, you are also old enough to take responsibility for your life. I think this means DFID has to own up explicitly to what it can and can’t do. It needs above all to change its contract with the UK taxpayer from one underpinned by a narrative of humanitarian assistance posing as development, to one underpinned by a new narrative of supporting incremental, non-linear, messy and political processes which often don’t succeed in bringing about the kinds of institutional changes which are needed for sustainability.

By ‘humanitarian assistance posing as development’, I mean the heavy focus of DFID’s development narrative on economic and welfare outcomes (the second and fifth, in my bullet list above), at the expense of outcomes to do with governance, justice and safety. Yes, these are harder to change, but without them, what hope is there for the sustainability of the welfare and livelihoods improvements? What hope is there for citizens of future Syrias to avoid the catastrophe Syrians are going through?

DFID needs to find a way come clean with its political masters – the UK taxpayer – about the difficulty of achieving the results that matter, the long-term, non-linear processes of change which might make the crucial difference for human flourishing in difficult contexts, the high likelihood of short-term failure, the fact that the size of the UK’s overseas development budget is not the most important measure of its importance, and that smaller, high quality programmes with the labour-intensive involvement of DFID staff and their more agile NGO partners are often more useful that large dollops of cash funnelled through governments, private firms and multinational agencies with insufficient clarity and accountability.

I feel obliged to quote, for probably the tenth time on this blog, Andrew Natsios’ very wise commentelsewhere I’ve called it Natsios’s Law –  that a fundamental problem for development programming in an era of increasing demands for accountability for results, is that the most easily measurable interventions are often the least transformational, while the most transformational are often the least measurable. DFID, with the support of the rest of the development community, needs to fess up to this, and take the political heat that will entail, at least at first. History – development – does not happen in a neat and tidy way that can be organised as a series of ‘projects’….

And perhaps hardest of all, it’s probably time to own up about how much aid money gets diverted, one way or another.

At bottom, unless DFID, as a young adult, starts speaking the truth, it will lose the respect and in the end, the support of those it needs to have a successful and fulfilling life – as defined by its own ambitious goals.


And finally, our young adult needs to explore the heady world of relationships. As the fairy tale has it, you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince – and probably later on, you find out he wasn’t the right prince, and you didn’t need a prince, anyway…  DFID, newly confident at 18, can afford to reach out confidently to those around her and offer to do things together. Among these, are the other parts of the UK government which face outwards towards the rest of the world, and who can help poor and vulnerable people abroad improve their lives. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is akin to DFID’s parent really, and an agency DFID has long had a slightly mistrustful relationship with, as many adolescents do with their parents. Now she is grown up, they can have a more mature relationship, defined by mutually agreed goals and how to achieve them: aid and diplomacy need to work hand in hand.  Other HMG agencies with which DFID needs to collaborate include the Home Office (e.g. on reducing the underlying causes and impacts of extremism and international crime abroad), The Dept. of Business, Innovation and Skills (improving livelihoods abroad, regulating the behaviour of UK-listed companies abroad…), the Ministry of Defence (safety and stability of people living in fragile countries), and the Dept. of Energy (dealing with climate change). There are others, too.

One of the problems for the adolescent DFID was always a) that it was less confident than the others, which were after all much older than her, and b) the fear of losing some of the cherished (and now ring-fenced) ODA budget. Now, surely, at eighteen years old, and with a trust fund most people her age would kill for, DFID can offer to share. Looking again at DFID’s ambitions listed above, it’s clear that there’s a role for many different HMG agencies, and NGOs from many sectors, in making progress towards them, so DFID needs to accept this and get better at sitting down with government colleagues to discuss strategies without gaming the discussions to avoid ‘losing out’ – as is currently too often the case. To be fair, it is normal behaviour of ministries in Whitehall to game any cross-Whitehall process to maximise their own glory and budget. But DFID can help change that. What matters – surely? – is the outcomes for people living in inadequate circumstances, and only that, rather than the mechanisms for achieving them, provided the right values are kept.

Growing up in the UK during the Northern Ireland troubles, and as an Englishman with little contextual knowledge about them, I always felt instinctively that the Protestants needed to give more, and give first, since they seemed to have so much more to start with. DFID, with the lion’s share of a government commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on ODA in perpetuity, is in a similar position: it must be the first to reach out to others who might be well-positioned to help meet its aims: be they other arms of HMG, NGOs, international agencies, or others, provided they can do so with the right values, and competently. After all, any DFID staff member will tell you privately that it’s not all being wisely or well-spent now…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 30, 2015 4:07 am

    Thanks for writing DFID at 18 years of age: how should a young adult behave?

    | Phil Vernon’s blog, truly enjoy it.


  1. What’s not to like about the UK’s new aid strategy? | Phil Vernon's blog

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