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DFID is changing – but is it changing fast enough?

DFID is changing - but is it changing fast enough?

(This piece was first published by Devex – see

A couple of years ago, it seemed possible that the future of DFIDDepartment for International Development as a free-standing Cabinet-level department of Government might be in play. No longer. DFID’s role as the ‘conscience’ of Government and focal point of HMG’s commitment to sustainable development is widely supported, including by all the main political parties.

Instead, attention has begun to focus on a different question, namely what changes DFIDDepartment for International Development needs, in a rapidly evolving development context, to its mandate, organisational structure, competences, and accountability.

It was not pre-ordained that the cards should fall this way. The UK is now the only major development actor with a free-standing ministry responsible for both policy and implementation. Most countries, as the Development Assistance Committee of the OECDOrganisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has reported, locate development policy within Ministries of Foreign Affairs, often with a separate agency-like structure for implementation of projects: think the Department of State and USAID, for example. Countries have been moving to integrate development more firmly within foreign policy structures, rather than the other way round: Canada and Australia have moved in this direction.

The reasons for greater integration can be viewed cynically, as a way to coopt development to foreign policy: to ‘instrumentalise’ development, subverting the objective of poverty reduction to national security or trade interests. No doubt, in some cases, these arguments hold sway. There are also, however, more honourable arguments. There are fewer and fewer low income countries – only 34 on the latest World Bank list – and most of those are fragile states, requiring multiple support, including diplomatic and sometimes military, as well as aid. Furthermore, more and more problems are seen to require action at global level, involving interaction with countries that either do not receive aid or are on a path to graduation; climate change is an obvious example, but action on disease pandemics, illicit financial transfers and trade policy all falls into the category of global public goods.

So ‘international development’ is, of course, about shaping and delivering aid to help the poorest people in poor countries. It may (a topic for a separate debate) be about supporting poverty reduction in middle income countries. But in addition, it has to be about: peace-making and peace-keeping in conflict-affected countries; brokering global deals on finance, trade or climate change; and building new partnerships with emerging economies. None of these jobs will disappear. Indeed, they are likely to grow in importance when a new Sustainable Development framework – comprehensive in scope and applicable to all countries - is agreed in New York in September.

Is DFIDDepartment for International Development fit-for-purpose in fulfilling this new role? That question has recently been asked both by the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD, in its Peer Review of the UK, published in December; and by the International Development Select Committee of the House of Commons, in its Report on The Future of UK Development Cooperation, published in February. Both reports praise the ambition of DFID’s work, its range, and its success on some dimensions of the new agenda (for example on girls and women). However, both point to the need for future change.

First, the new UK Government in 2015 will have to revise the legislation which mandates the poverty focus of UK aid: to make sure that the new development agenda is properly reflected, to be explicit that the poverty mandate applies to all development cooperation, including the rising share entrusted to other Government Departments, and to update the reporting requirements that currently focus on the Millennium Development Goals, but will need to relate to the new SDG framework. Both the 2002 and 2006 International Development Acts will need review.

Second, the Government will have to do better at spelling out its strategic objectives, and embedding them more firmly in its own results frameworks and strategic plans. The DACDevelopment Assistance Committee (of the OECD) lamented the lack of a comprehensive approach to policy coherence. The Select Committee agreed. If the Government (NB not DFID) were to spell out its over-arching objectives, then DFIDDepartment for International Development could have a mandate as the enforcer. It would need to be equipped with the necessary tools, for example impact analysis or spillover-analysis, conducted as a matter of routine when domestic policy was framed.

Third, the right structures will need to be in place: better use of the Security Council, with that body taking a wide view of security issues, as, for example, is the case with the new US National Security Strategy; imaginative use of cross-Government funding bodies, like the International Climate Fund, run jointly by DFID, DECC and DEFRA, or the new Conflict, Stability, and Security Fund, replacing the old Conflict Pool; and joint units, like the Trade Policy Unit set up jointly by DFIDDepartment for International Development and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Fourth, there will need to be better monitoring, evaluation and accountability. This implies new roles for DFID’s own internal evaluation department, but also for the Independent Commission on Aid Impact and the National Audit Office. All will need to focus less on aid projects and more on policy issues. The Select Committee will also have to think differently about how it works, perhaps conducting joint enquiries with other Committees, like Foreign Affairs or Climate Change, and also engaging more with its counterpart in the European Parliament.

Finally, the people who work in DFIDDepartment for International Development may need new skills. Historically, DFID, or its predecessor body, the ODA, employed many engineers, who knew how to build roads or power stations. Those cadres were replaced, gradually, with people who knew how to deliver health and education programmes, including via budget support. Now, DFIDDepartment for International Development has many humanitarian advisers, often working in complex political environments. There are also many professional advisers who work on trade, health or the production of global knowledge products. No doubt in the future, DFIDDepartment for International Development will need competences across the range of disciplines. Certainly, it will need cadres who know how to work across Government, and who are adept at global negotiations. Perhaps DFIDDepartment for International Development needs a capacity or competence review to help plan future staffing? And perhaps it needs its own training academy?

In March this year, the Queen approved legislation which guarantees international development/aid funding at 0.7% of GNI. This is a momentous event in global development policy, and will shape the course of UK policy in the years ahead. It would be a mistake, however, to think that DFIDDepartment for International Development exists solely to deliver aid – or that aid exists solely to deliver traditional services to very poor people. The development agenda is changing. DFIDDepartment for International Development itself is changing. But is it changing fast enough?

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