13 July 2009

Building our Common Future: a comment on the new DFID White Paper

by Lawrence Haddad, 13 July 2009

The Department for International Development’s (DFID) new White Paper presents the case for development spending well. But a change in focus and increasing need to demonstrate impact must not be allowed to stifle creativity, innovation and risk taking.

The DFID White Paper on International Development released on 6 July is admirable in many ways. It reaffirms the UK's 0.7 per cent commitment to spending on international development, with plenty of sensible ideas on how to allocate it. The report does well to balance the moral cause for development spending with the common causes around prosperity, security and the environment. It presents the case for development spending as well as any similar document has done. But it contains three fundamental tensions.

First, more money is going to be spent on a smaller number of countries – the poorest and the most fragile. This means that DFID spending will become relatively more important in financing the government and civil society of those countries. Issues of ownership, alignment, absorption and predictability will become more and more important in these contexts. It will place a magnifying glass over DFID’s actions, potentially making them more risk averse.

Second, this risk-averse behaviour might well frustrate DFID's creativity when trying to generate an impact in increasingly fragile and unfamiliar contexts. Generating and demonstrating an impact has always been an imperative for DFID but on the eve of a UK general election it is ever more so – note the ukaid logo – but without creativity and innovation, fuelled by calculated risk taking, this will be difficult.

Third, the focus on strengthening international institutions will help leverage an increased aid spend in the poorest and most fragile countries by bringing a wider range of policy options to bear. But DFID must make every attempt to lead the reform of the international institutions so that their efforts have a bigger positive impact on the poorest people.

Focus makes sense, but it must be accompanied by critical self reflection from DFID on what they should and should not do. Making a difference in fragile states does not mean playing it safe – it means using greater imagination, coordination and calculation. And all of this national investment needs to be part of a web of policies and initiatives from reformed international institutions that are more enabling than ever.

The election in 2010 may reduce the lifespan of this White Paper. But the legacy it leaves behind should be of focus married to critical self-reflection, responsibility harnessed to creative and calculated risk taking, and leverage in tandem with reform.

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With limited resources, the DFID should know how to prioritize these projects so they can achieve their objectives.

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