24 March 2010

The Department for Global Development

I was at an interesting discussion group at Chatham House on Monday. The topic was the UK's role in the world with special reference to the "developing world".

One sub-text was "what should a modern ministry for development look like?"

Clearly we want this modern ministry to go "beyond aid"-- that's a given. But we also want it to go "beyond development" by actively engaging with actors who are not actively thinking about how they affect development, but nevertheless are very influential (e.g. businesses, religions, philanthrophy groups, departments of finance, ministries of defence).

We want this modern ministry to put development at the heart of resource flows-both public and private. We want this ministry to work with a range of countries: (1) fragile states, (2) poor but developmental states, (3) middle income countries and (4) the rich countries too. We want it to support the creation of national and global public goods. And we want it to continue to be represented in Cabinet and be
influential in Whitehall. In short, we want a DFGD -- a Department for Global Development.

What would this DFGD do? In the first group of countries the challenge is to help deliver services to the very poorest where states will not or cannot deliver them--in such a way that helps those countries become more stable and developmental. In the second group, the challenge is to support on-going domestic initiatives to sustain development ...to hold governments and others to account and enable citizens to take their own initiatives to improve their lives. In the third group the challenge is to support the engagement of these newly powerful countries in international development in ways that support poverty reduction and social justice domestically and internationally, with an emphasis on global public goods that achieve developmental goals. In the final group, the challenge is to put development at the heart of all donor government activity-at worst avoiding harm to development goals and at best promoting changes that support efforts of the other 3 groups of countries.

But let's be clear, the establishment of a department for global development is a massive challenge.

First, it is hampered by the limits of public support generated by current communication models. The public in rich countries need to see something come of their investment in international development,something they can relate to. And they do not expect failure.

Achievement is easiest to see in the second group of countries-kids going to school, disease rates being lowered, peaceful transitions of power, and poverty rates falling. After this it gets difficult. In the first group, the fragile states, the absence of conflict is not a powerful news story, but the siphoning off of aid is, even when it is the exception rather than the rule. For the third group-Brazil, India
and China-the nature of accomplishments is hard to make tangible (for example, try explaining global public goods to...well, anyone) and in any case it would undermine these relationships to claim any hand in them. For the fourth group, the new ministry for global development can only express satisfaction at success behind the scenes if it wants to avoid internecine warfare or a diplomatic incident.

Human organizations being what they are, dealing with the second group will be incentivized. For this group, creditable things are likely to happen and credit can be claimed for them happening. For the first group, achievements will more likely be obscured and for the last two groups credit will be in the form of a supporting actor or ghostwriter.

To its credit, DFID has increased substantially the priority given to the first group and is engaging with countries and with multilaterals working in other groups.

Second, working as a department for global development will be hard going. Working in partnership promises greater returns, but it also requires a relinquishing of control. Working in China, India and Brazil demands a different set of skills from those typically found in an "aid ministry"-negotiation and contestation will be the norm. Working across ministries within government is easier said than done and is often used as a way of consigning things to the long grass. Working with unusual
suspects is, well, unusual--suspicions are not easily quelled nor cultures smoothly bridged.

Nevertheless my sense is that a ministry for global development should be the aspiration. It would mean working for global public goods. It would mean working in different ways, tailored to the 4 groups of countries. In the UK it would mean that the DFGD would work intensely with BIS, DTI, DECC, DoD, and FCO to place a developmental perspective at the heart of government activity. It would mean working more actively with those outside the development bubble. And it would mean being realistic with the UK public about what we can expect for 8 billion pounds a year.

The new DFGD would develop significant joint funding streams and programmes with other ministries [sharing resources before they are taken away], would have a more diverse set of skills (business,political, creative, relational) recruited to its workforce, would change its employee performance incentives towards more collaborative and innovative ways of working, and would enhance the capacity of its stakeholders to communicate its value added in an independent way. None of this is easy. In the UK DFID is one of the best international development agencies and hence the incentives for radical change are even weaker. But will DFID as we know it still be relevant in 2020 if radical change is not supported? Other Whitehall Departments will also need to change the ways in which they interact with this new ministry.

DFID may always be the better acronym, but when will DFGD become the better synonym for what we care about? Has it already? What do you think?

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