06 October 2010

Whose Child Benefits? The Conservative Party Conference

This week it was Birmingham and the Conservative Party Conference. The UK Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, was on the IDS panel along with Judith Randal from Development Initiatives and Oliver Buston from One.

I kicked off with 7 points to make aid more effective in leveraging “development in a cold climate” (quote from Andrew Mitchell).

1. To accelerate development, go beyond development. Many of the most powerful movements and ideas in development have come from outside of it (e..g the green movement, the women’s movement) and we need to keep looking outside the development bubble for ideas and for leverage.
2. Hold a competition for ideas to better engage the public on development. Whether or not MyAid is a good idea, it is trying to fill an engagement gap. Rather than pick a winner, have a competition to find the best way to fill the gap.
3. Establish an impacts innovation laboratory. I’m worried that we will measure what is amenable rather than what is meaningful. Issues need to drive methods. But methods tend to drive what is measured. We need new hybrid blends of methods to evaluate new policies and practices.
4. Make sure the aid watchdog can wag its tail. ODA ending up outside DFID is a small amount right now. That promises to get bigger. The aid watchdog must be for all of ODA, not just for DFID.
5. Put accountability to the citizens of aid recipient countries at the heart of what the Big Society means for international development. There are many social accountability mechanisms to choose from, and they work. DFID could make the use of these a requirement of all its monitoring and evaluation work.
6. Use the allocation of ODA to other government departments as an opportunity to realize a “One HMG” (i.e. Her Majesty’s Government) approach to development. Many of us go on about development being about much more than aid, well now we have a chance to engage with other Departments about how they should use aid.
7. Make sure value for money (VfM) scrutinizes strategy, but does not drive it. In particular, don’t equate VfM with low cost. Many different strategies can give similar VfM results.

Ollie made some interesting points about the challenge of communicating good news about aid—about the need to occupy the ground between individual stories and big numbers (there was a fascinating Ben Goldacre report on this in the Guardian last week on research indicating that criminals whose deeds affect a small number of people get less severe sentences than those who commit similar crimes but affect more people. For the smaller number, empathy kicks in big time). He cited Dambisa Moyo’s book as an effective (if inaccurate) way of constructing a narrative about aid (see my review here). He talked about Paul Collier’s work on the governance of natural resources (see my review here).

Judith highlighted the power of information (e.g. Right to Information in India) and money (pensions in South Africa) for development, and in response to a question from the floor (the room was hot and packed) said that it was difficult to evaluate the relative effectiveness of aid to governments and aid directly to households, in part, because of a lack of info on aid flows, something that Andrew Mitchell said would change soon.

Andrew Mitchell noted the extraordinary consensus that existed in the UK on international development (“the enemies of international development are not to be found within the UK political parties”). On aid skepticism he gave the example of two hypothetical announcements on television: one announcing DFID have helped 20,000 children get into and graduate from school and one announcing DFID had spent so many millions on schooling in the same country. Which would elicit the boot through the TV screen? He said that the former announcement would reassure the skeptics. He cited the importance of the new aid watchdog’s independence and assured us that it would also look at non-DFID ODA. He talked about the importance of transparency and accountability and about the potential for the right governance to make natural resources a blessing, not a curse. It was encouraging to hear of his ambition to tackle the neglected crisis of undernutrition.

Questions from the floor focused on the worries about measuring the amenable, not the meaningful (especially around the role of women), on transparency outside of aid (and specifically on when will the UK government will pass legislation similar to that in the US on transparency in extractive industries, the Cardin-Lugar bill) and why exactly did one of the panelists described Moyo’s book as disingenuous?

These questions prompted a lively debate, but perhaps the best question of the evening was on the fairness of the just-announced cuts in child benefit for UK kids set against an increasing overseas aid spend. No-one really fancied tackling that one, and I doubt that a focus on development outcomes, while helpful, will provide satisfactory responses to the posers of these types of questions.

We are going to see more and more of these kinds of ethical dilemmas arise in development and to get a handle on some of the issues, I can recommend the Development Studies Association Conference on November 5 at Church House in London, which wil be on "Values, Ethics and Morality".

1 comment:

Jeneral28 said...

Great post.

Several points: Why are people still harping on Moyo's book? It's flawed in so many ways even if you aren't a trained development economist or academic.

MyAid. The plan will only put anti-development, anti-aid ideas into reality. Alreqady there's been a huge flurry of such people on forums and even the Guardians Development section. Getting the public's view on aid plans won't work unless you educate them about the actually realities of aid--any no it's not just about gaining value for money.

Development beyond development and aid: Has been championed way before. The problem is there's little coordination--DFID might plan A now but say FCO's or Trade's plan B willl negate DFID's plan A. Theoratically, it's all about whose ideas gets where.