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What’s not to like about the UK’s new aid strategy?

November 24, 2015

The UK’s new aid strategy, released this week, resonates quite harmoniously with peacebuilding. It is increasingly and widely understood, not least at International Alert, that peace is not just the absence of fighting, but the capacity within and between societies to manage and resolve differences without violence, and enable progress in terms of increased human flourishing. This is what’s known as “positive peace”, and the new aid strategy frames the UK’s aid goals very much in these terms. International Alert’s own interpretation of positive peace explains that it is an outcome of five mutually reinforcing factors:

  • Improved, functional governance and relationships
  • Inclusive access to income and savings opportunities in a sustainably growing economy
  • Inclusive security
  • Inclusive and fair access to justice
  • Fair and inclusive access to well-being in terms of health, education, decent living environment, status, etc.

These are all interlinked and can either reinforce or undermine each other and thus peace more broadly, as shown below.

Capture peace factors

Not only does the new strategy say half of all aid spending will be in fragile and conflict-affected contexts – the very places where development progress and human flourishing is most stubbornly held back by the lack of peace. But its four strategic objectives are framed very much in line with the notion of building positive peace expressed above.

  1. Strengthening global peace, security and governance. Prima facie this deals with peace as a whole and two of the five positive peace factors listed above. Delving more deeply, this component is focused on addressing the underlying causes, not just the phenomena, of insecurity, conflict and poor governance. It explicitly notes the need for a ‘patient, long-term approach’ – a welcome antidote to past, rather a-historical and sometimes hubristic approaches which seemed to be premised on the idea that the political economy in countries far away could be somehow “fixed”. The strategy also clearly understands that ‘conflict’ is not just about fighters in combat fatigues – Syria, Iraq, Congo, Afghanistan and Philippines, etc. – it’s also about endemic violence in places affected by organised, often international crime – places like Brazil, Jamaica and Mexico – as well as places where civil war and organised crime overlap, such as Colombia and Mali; and of course places where violent extremists emerge and/or commit acts of violence.
  1. Strengthen resilience and response to crises. Here too, the peacebuilder reading the strategy has a smile on her face, as the very same elements needed to increase resilience to conflict also, by and large, increase resilience to weather, climate and other disasters: improved governance, access to livelihoods, and well-being, which in turn increase security and justice. (Our five positive peace factors again). This is why Alert has argued for years that climate adaptation in conflict-affected environments should follow good peacebuilding practice. And of course, societies which anticipate and respond to crises effectively are less susceptible to the kinds of civil conflicts which turn violent, so there is mutual reinforcement between disaster resilience and conflict resilience. A win-win. Meanwhile, responding to crises such as in Syria can and must be done in a way which promotes the emergence of a more resilient and peaceful country and society in the future, by “building back better”.
  1. Promoting global prosperity. Without prosperity, livelihoods are inadequate; without livelihoods there are fewer taxes and services, so fewer opportunities to improve justice, well-being, governance and security – and to create the infrastructure needed for more prosperity… As we argued in Peace through Prosperity earlier this year, economic development and economic activities in general need to be seen as opportunities not only to grow the economy, but also strengthen peace and stability. This means ensuring policies and businesses intentionally seek to improve fair economic participation and the accumulation of assets by people all across society, increase taxes and push for these to be wisely and fairly spent in an accountable system of governance, and also aim for social and environment sustainability. We would strongly recommend HMG to link this third objective where possible with the first and second, targeting fair and sustainable economic development in fragile and conflict-affected places, as a way to address peace, security and governance upstream, and in its support to the eventual reconstruction of countries like Philippines, Nepal, Syria, Yemen and Nigeria so that as they emerge from violence and disaster they build a more resilient, positive peace. 
  1. Tackling extreme poverty and helping the world’s most vulnerable. Nor does the fourth and final objective disappoint the avid peacebuilder, as she continues to read. This plank of the strategy aims to reduce the kinds of exclusion which contribute to grievance and desperation, and render people susceptible to recruitment into violence: whether in gangs or militias. It targets improving what peacebuilders call ‘well-being’, and it specifically targets a reduction in physical and structural violence against women and girls. The strategy also includes clever ideas for spending large amounts of money to enable and leverage greater impact, such as the ‘Ross Fund’ designed to invest in developing and making new, affordable health technologies which are relevant to development outcomes where vulnerable people live.

So, a top-level rapid review of the document is liable to leave peacebuilders feeling the UK government is substantially on their side, in aiming to build more peaceful communities, countries and regions in a more peaceful, better governed and less violent world. It is also very welcome that the strategy is framed in terms of UK interests, so squarely part of its foreign policy, rather than separate from it as its aid programmes have sometimes seemed in the past. So far, so good.

The strategy does of course raise some concerns – after all, how could a blog post emanating from civil society welcome a new government policy in its entirety? I’m relatively comfortable with some of these concerns, less so with others.

Expanding the meaning of ODA

The paper raises the idea of expanding the boundaries of ODA – i.e. altering the technical definition of official development aid, as agreed by the OECD-DAC (what’s “dac-able”, in the jargon). This worries many, who fear an enlarged definition of ODA will allow more military and security spending to be classified as dac-able, thus reducing the money available for more traditional development and humanitarian purposes, raising questions about whether some of the funded activities really are good for development, and potentially undermining the safety of aid workers who become confused with or tarnished by association with security services. This is the so-called “securitisation of aid” (not the worst piece of aid jargon, but it comes close.)

Others fear that an expansion of ODA boundaries will allow a return of tied aid through the back door, or permit the use of aid resources to promote UK commercial interests. Both fears are probably justified, and the way the new aid strategy overlaps with the simultaneously released Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), the strong focus on prosperity in both documents, and the somewhat bizarre idea that the new Global Prosperity Fund will be overseen by the National Security Council, tend to reinforce these fears.

But I am at least partly reassured by the fact that ODA definitions are held by the OECD-DAC collective of 29 countries, and we all know how difficult it is to get a large group of large institutions to agree to radical change. Two other factors pertain. First, we need to respect the fact that many of us have spent years arguing that security is an essential element of development, so it seems weird, even a little churlish, to turn round now and deny donors the right to classify at least some of their spending on security as ODA. Second, in the UK political context of massive departmental cuts, it’s surely common sense that ODA, as one of the few ring-fenced budgets, would be susceptible to some cross-Whitehall interest, and as I’ve argued before, it’s probably in DFID’s own interests to share some of this largesse with other, perhaps poorer departments whose expertise is needed or useful in dealing with kinds of issues identified in the aid strategy:  climate change, diplomacy and international crime, for example. In any case, let’s not ignore that it’s widely admitted within the aid and development sector that although the government’s commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid is broadly welcome, it’s not entirely clear that we know how to spend that much money effectively – after all, most of it is given away in very large lumps to less than entirely competent and less than perfectly accountable international organisations…

So, as my colleague Jo Robinson has argued elsewhere, there may be less to fear from a renegotiation of ODA, than some claim. We certainly need to keep an eye out for ‘ODA-stretch’, budget re-labelling, and cross-Whitehall predators, but that’s not the main concern. Under the ‘more concerning’ heading, I’d list three inter-linked issues:

Getting ahead of ourselves

A phenomenon of contemporary public policy debates is that while our ability to deconstruct and define problems (e.g. in terms of “root causes”) and outcomes has become increasingly sophisticated, our ability to prescribe and deliver solutions tends to lag behind.  International development is particular fertile ground for this – perhaps because its currency can be parodied as “better societies for other people to live in, somewhere far away” – seemingly more the realm of philosophy and the academy, than practical action, at first sight. Strengthening governance is certainly the right objective to plump for, but that doesn’t make it easy to achieve on any important scale, and it certainly doesn’t make it easily projectisable. Look at how American governance improved between the eras of Abraham Lincoln and FD Roosevelt. It took almost a century to overcome endemic political corruption, and that in a country with the rule of law foundations of English common law and an enlightened constitution, along with a can-do culture ready to tackle big challenges, and – perhaps above all – millions of hectares of virtually free land to exploit and develop to create the fastest ever sustained period of economic growth and accompanying public service expansion known to history. How long will it take to achieve even a portion of that sort of change in the complex political economies of poor, fragile and conflict-affected countries, and will HMG have the patience and humility to support such uncertain change at the speed and scale required? We need to take care that the commitment to a ‘patient, long term approach’ is not undermined by the politics of wanting to ‘get things done’, potentially undermining HMG’s goals, and perhaps making things worse for people in the countries concerned.

Implementation vehicles

Second, and linked to this, is the problem of identifying appropriate implementation instruments. The new strategy is light on these, rightly awaiting the results of a series of aid mechanism reviews currently underway. But we can perhaps be forgiven for a degree of scepticism about whether sufficient instruments exist or can be developed, commensurate to the scale and difficulty of the challenge. I write from within civil society. I work for International Alert which does excellent work, and we are not alone in that: NGOs largely do a great job, contributing to peacebuilding, humanitarian response and development each according to its comparative advantage. But while countless NGOs from around the world with capacities relevant to this new strategy can and ought to be channelling more of the UK’s aid, few of us can absorb the vast sums in play except in bite-sized chunks: and don’t forget even a grant of £10 million per year is a bite-sized chunk, set against HMG’s annual ODA budget of £12 bn and growing…. Meanwhile DFID is under treasury-imposed headcount constraints, thus has to minimise transaction costs, and is therefore forced to seek ways to give away its money in ever-larger chunks: administering a grant or contract worth £500,000 costing about the same to DFID as one worth twenty times as much. This means fewer, larger contracts and grants and, unfortunately, a consequent risk HMG will use blunt and ill-adapted tools when subtler, more surgical intervention is required: careful, flexible resources which can be adapted as needed, based on good monitoring and evaluation. So it’s important we continue to observe how HMG plans to deliver the four very complex outcomes it has set itself, to ensure it picks instruments fit for the purposes it has defined. It may be politically pointless to say this in the present climate, but DFID needs many more staff than it currently has, in order to spend £12 bn with due care and attention, especially in fragile contexts.

The politics of value for money

And finally, the problem posed by the value for money agenda. The first point to make here is that all taxpayers’ money should be spent with value for money in mind: voters would expect and demand nothing less. But let’s be honest: this is very hard to achieve in circumstances when many of the targeted outcomes are somewhat fuzzy, by nature. How does one evaluate the value of increments of progress towards good governance, when it is known that good governance has evolved historically in a non-linear way, and when the ultimate and unpredictable outcome likely depends on many decades of incremental, often stop-start, zig-zag, one-step-forward-two-steps-backward progress. How do we ensure that programmes with more easily measurable but perhaps less important outcomes don’t win the value-for-money competition, set against less measurable, but more important outcomes and goals? Which is the tortoise, and which, the hare? And really, in an environment awash with ODA cash, as DFID will be for the next few years, does anyone seriously believe that a value for money approach will easily succeed? Surely any economist will tell you that scarcity drives value for money, not abundance?


But to conclude, I’ll return to the beginning of this piece. Yes, we must remain vigilant as peacebuilders and civil society, to ensure that the right implementation pathways are chosen for the four new strategic objectives, and that we balance pragmatism with long-term, risk-taking, patient approaches aiming ultimately for changed political economies more conducive to peace and shared prosperity.

But on the whole, we must surely welcome what is, largely, a very encouraging sign that the UK intends to remain an important supporter and promoter of a fairer, more secure, prosperous and peaceful world in which more people can flourish, freer of fear.




3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 25, 2015 5:28 am

    It’s the Conservatives version of a White Paper like Labour used to publish during their time in government.

    Yes it will be a challenge to modify the definition of ODA but yes that OECD definition needs reforming.

  2. November 25, 2015 11:04 am

    how would you reform it – any specific ideas?

  3. January 5, 2016 12:20 am

    This is a great piece! That’s a very important point about accountability of aid money to the domestic constituency. Along with the problem of measurable outcomes being potentially prioritised over non-measurable ones, the measurable outcomes themselves aren’t always predictable or ‘easy’. Development is an exercise of constant learning but the way it is portrayed in the developed world’s media/narratives is as a linear transfer of resources which results in x or y. Perhaps changing this narrative through more conversations, accessible-for-the-layman articles, engaging TV coverage etc could dilute the preconceptions that the general public has about development.

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