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Is teacher pleased? The DACDevelopment Assistance Committee (of the OECD) Peer Review of the UK 2014

The peer review of UK development cooperation by the Development Assistance Committee of the OED was published on 17 December. I summarise the findings here, identifying many positive points and five rather hard-hitting questions embedded in the report. On the one hand, the UK is a recognised leader in shaping the global development agenda and has admirably reached the 0.7 target; it has an effective institutional system, and has successfully protected the poverty focus of its work. On the other hand, the DACDevelopment Assistance Committee (of the OECD) asks (and these are my words, not theirs):

  1. Does the UK know where it is going on global development?
  2. Is DFIDDepartment for International Development gummed up by targets, procedures and transactions costs?
  3. Is DFIDDepartment for International Development over-centralised?
  4. Has DFIDDepartment for International Development over-reached itself as a knowledge-led organisation?
  5. Has DFIDDepartment for International Development become a bit of a global bully?

The answers to those questions might or might not be favourable to DFIDDepartment for International Development and the UK Government. I take no position (in this piece!). If they are not, then remedial action needs to be taken, some of it recommended by the DAC, and some which can be fine-tuned to UK political processes and timetables (e.g. a White Paper after the election). One complaint: it is a pity the DACDevelopment Assistance Committee (of the OECD) report does not recognise the contribution to shaping the agenda of the International Development Select Committee. Its forthcoming report on policy coherence, Beyond Aid, will be a blockbuster. At least, I hope so: I am (declaration of interest) Specialist Adviser.

Peer Reviews are carried out every four or five years. The last review of the UK was published in 2010. Their purposes, according to the DACare ‘to help the country understand where it could improve its development strategy and structures so that it can increase the effectiveness of its investment; and to identify and share good practice in development policy and strategy’.Reviews are carried out by two Member States, in this case Denmark and the Netherlands, supported by the Secretariat. They include field visits, in this case to Nigeria and Nepal.

The Report consists of about 100 pages, of which a dozen make up the official findings and recommendations, and the remainder the ‘Secretariat Report’ (SR). See Figure 1 for the Table of Contents of the SR. There are also several annexes, including one (Annex A) which reports on progress in implementing the recommendations of the 2010 Peer review. The report is a valuable source of data and description, complementing that provided by DFIDDepartment for International Development itself (for example in its annual Departmental Report), by the Independent Commission on Aid Impact (ICAI) by the National Audit Office, and by the International Development Select Committee. The NAO, by the way, published its Annual Report on the performance of DFID on 22 December. That is probably worth a separate note.

Figure 1

The ‘Main Findings and Recommendations’ follow the chapter outline above, with a one-page ‘fiche’ on each topic and a box containing the recommendations. Figure 2 below brings together all the recommendations.

It is in the nature of these reports that the text is carefully worded, and that negative comments are balanced with positive ones. The Harvard Business Review has published an article which argues that the average ratio of positive to negative within high-performing teams is 5.6:1. I haven’t calculated the ratio in the DACDevelopment Assistance Committee (of the OECD) report!

There is plenty for the UK to be pleased with:

  • On a comprehensive UK development effort (Pg 15):
    • ‘The UK continues to lead in shaping the global development agenda . . . it uses its position strategically to address global public risks and bring development concerns into international policy fora’.
    • ‘The Secretary of State’s seat in Cabinet and membership of the National Security Council ensure DFIDDepartment for International Development is well-placed to promote coherence between policies to support development’.
    • ‘The UK has a useful case-by-case approach to policy coherence . . . (e.g. climate change, trade, anti-corruption) . . . and choosing to focus these efforts on a limited number of policy areas where there are win-win opportunities is strategic’.
    • ‘DFID is shaping a new approach to fostering economic development . . . (and) has managed to maintain a pro-poor focus’.
  • On the vision and policies for development cooperation (Pg 16)
    • ‘Persistent political will, sustained by broad cross-party consensus, makes it possible to achieve ambitious objectives’.
    • ‘The UK is doing an excellent job of protecting the poverty reduction focus of the development cooperation programme’.
    • DFID is ‘strategically reaching out to emerging powers’.
    • ‘DFID has engaged in innovative approaches to allocate its resources effectively’.
    • ‘DFID is committed to engaging in fragile and conflict-affected countries’.
  • On allocating the UK’s oda (Pg 17)
    • ‘In a very challenging fiscal climate, the UK has met its commitment to provide 0.7% of its GNI as oda by 2013 . . . This commendable, well-planned achievement adds weight to the UK’s internationally recognised leading role’.
    • ‘There is a clear focus on low income countries, fragile states, and social infrastructure and services’.
    • ‘DFID contributes to a more effective multilateral system through its multilateral aid review process, its strategic engagement on the boards of multilateral organisations, and its active involvement in the strengthening of the Multilateral Organisations Performance Assessment Network (MOPAN)’.
  • On managing the UK’s development cooperation  (Pg 18):
    • ‘The UK’s development cooperation has an effective institutional system, with a clear mandate, a seat in the Cabinet, and a decentralised model backed by a critical mass of development specialists’.
    • ‘UK Departments work well at country level on specific issues of mutual interest’.
    • ‘DFID has planned well how to strengthen capabilities and systems to disburse the scaled-up budget’.
    • ‘DFID’s strategic approach translates into continuous improvement processes  . . . DFIDDepartment for International Development actively promotes innovation’.
    • ‘DFID has a forward-looking human resources strategy’.
  • On delivery and partnership (Pg 19):
    • ‘DFID delivers its programme effectively’.
    • ‘The UK systematically and robustly analyses different types of risk’.
    • ‘DFID works closely with development partners, often taking a leadership role at country level’.
  • On results, management and accountability (Pg 20):
    • ‘There is a clear political drive to achieve results . . . DFIDDepartment for International Development has an impressive results system’.
    • ‘The UK is a top performer on transparency’.
    • ‘DFID is a leader on evaluation internationally . . .  and has taken major steps to produce evidence on what works in development’.
  • On humanitarian assistance (Pg 21):
    • ‘Globally, the UK has played a significant role, including . . . galvanising international support for humanitarian crises’.
    • ‘DFID’s humanitarian policy recognises international principles and good practices’.
    • ‘The UK maintains a strong focus on proper targeting of its humanitarian funding, with rigorous decision-making processes to support and justify individual funding decisions’.
    • ‘Civil-military coordination appears to function well under civilian command’.
    • ‘The UK provides high quality (humanitarian) funding to partners’.

I make that 28 positive comments, but I have been a bit selective, so there are probably more. On the Harvard standard, that would entitle the DACDevelopment Assistance Committee (of the OECD) to precisely 5 negative comments. In fact, there are quite a few more than that. Just as one indication, the Main Findings and Recommendations section contains as many as 17 instances of the word ‘However’. In fact, many of the positive comments are matched by questions or criticisms.

Rather than report these seriatim, it is more interesting to group them. I have identified five main challenges in the report, which can be presented as five questions. Don’t be surprised that some of these seem directly to contradict the positive statements: those little ‘howevers’ carry weight.

I present the critiques without comment, but obviously some will wish to question the evidence base or veracity of the DAC’s conclusions. I come back to the implications at the end.

  1. Does the UK know where it is going? This is a question raised (of course in slightly less brutal language) in the sections on policy coherence for development, on vision and policy and on multilateralism, among others. Thus (Pg 16) ‘Addressing the interconnected issues of the post-2015 development agenda will require, more than ever, finding ways to bring together the UK as a whole with a common vision,  . . . (yet) the overall rationale for international development in relation to other UK policies is not clearly stated’. Furthermore (Pg 15) ‘the lack of a comprehensive approach to ensuring its development efforts are not undermined by other government policies means potential incoherence  . . . can be overlooked . . .  (and) the UK does not appear to be investing in building a knowledge base about the impacts of UK policies on developing countries’. With regard to the multilateral system (Pg 16) ‘the absence of a multilateral strategy  . . . leads to lack on consistency . . . (and) it is not clear whether the overall portfolio of UK multilateral aid makes the best use of the expertise of international organisations, and is complementary to the bilateral  programme. At country level (Pg 18) ‘institutional barriers, separate lines of responsibility and the lack of an overarching UK strategy hamper collaboration. As a result, it is difficult to see how different UK policy agendas and programmes fit together . . .’.
  2. Is DFIDDepartment for International Development gummed up by targets, procedures and transactions costs? This is a point raised throughout, especially in the sections on allocation, management, and delivery. Importantly, the problems arise not just in relation to the bilateral programme, but also in relation to multilaterals. Also they impact negatively on staff motivation and performance. Thus, and being highly selective, (Pg 19) ‘DFID’s emphasis on results and value for money and increased security and ministerial oversight translate into heavy corporate procedures and less delegation of authority to country offices . . .  DFIDDepartment for International Development has not managed to reduce its reporting requirements and programming processes have become even more cumbersome’. ‘The UK’s excellent reputation among partners has been somewhat damaged by its increasingly time-consuming approach . . .’.  (Pg 17): targets (set centrally) ‘can make it more difficult for country offices to maintain context-base programming’. And ‘DFID’s oversight requirements for non-core funding (of multilaterals) are becoming heavy and time-consuming for all its multilateral partners . . . , which puts the quality of partnerships at risk’. Internally (Pg 18), DFID’s internal systems seem to foster a compliance culture and do not encourage risk-taking, tendencies that have been exacerbated by the strong pressure to show results . . . many staff do not feel they can challenge the way things are done’.
  3. Is DFIDDepartment for International Development over-centralised? Despite praise for decentralisation and context-specific programming, there are some sharp comments about over-centralisation, in the sections which deal with vision    . Thus (Pg 17) ‘tight geographical concentration is undermined, to some extent, by the decline in the share of UK bilateral assistance programmed at country level . . . (with) DFIDDepartment for International Development country offices not systematically consulted on central and regional programmes’. (Pg 16) ‘ensuring that the requirements (of global priorities) do not overburden staff and become ‘check-box exercises’ remains a constant challenge.’ And (Pg 19) the UK puts less emphasis on using country systems and has become more sensitive to reputational and fiduciary risk’.
  4. Has DFIDDepartment for International Development over-reached itself as a knowledge-led organisation? This is a point which appears in sections dealing with research, evaluation and knowledge management. We are told (Pg 20) that ‘DFID is not strategic enough in deciding what to evaluate, with a risk of overload’ that ‘it is not clear how ICAI contributes in ways that complement other accountability mechanisms’, and that because of the ‘sheer volume of intellectual production . . . the UK appears to be approaching a saturation point where it is difficult to use all the analysis and evidence . . .’.
  5. Has DFIDDepartment for International Development become a bit of a global bully? Finally, the report comments a number of times on DFID’s approach to global partners. Thus, with respect to humanitarian aid (Pg 20) ‘there is a fine line between ensuring UK priorities are implemented and listening to, and respecting, the positions of others on the global stage.’ And (Pg 19) ‘the UK needs to manage the risk that its focus on reporting to domestic audiences weakens its engagement on mutual accountability’.

In terms of what to do with all this, the DACDevelopment Assistance Committee (of the OECD) makes many specific recommendations, brought together in Figure 2: set out a medium term vision; improve policy coherence; reduce the number of spending targets; simplify procedures; do more to respect national ownership and the role of other development partners; and so on.    

I wouldn’t be surprised if DFIDDepartment for International Development ministers and senior civil servants actually agreed with quite a few of these points. Intriguingly, DFIDDepartment for International Development are consulted extensively during preparation of the report, so it may well be that some at senior level in DFIDDepartment for International Development are using the DACDevelopment Assistance Committee (of the OECD) to make a point. Speculating who such people might be, whether at political level or otherwise, is beyond my competence.

In any case, I would have thought some actions will be relatively straightforward. A White Paper soon after the election would deal with all the strategy points, including those related to policy coherence (although actually I wonder whether a second WP would be needed in early 2016, and, if so, whether it would be worth waiting and doing just one). A thorough ‘end-to-end’ admin review has already led to new ‘smart rules’ and some simplification, and could be extended. Tying together future bilateral and multilateral aid reviews is an obvious thing to do. Decentralisation might be a bit more difficult; and culture, allowing staff more freedom and time to think, well, that’s probably a long-term tension.

So, reading the review does not make me despondent. Rather the opposite. There is one major gap, however, and that is the failure to mention the UK Parliament’s Select Committee on International Development. I am Specialist Adviser to the Committee, and may be biased, but it seems to me that the IDCInternational Development Committee makes a substantial contribution to the quality of analysis and accountability in the field, and also to the cross-party consensus that the Report identifies as a UK asset. Current work includes a major enquiry on policy coherence, for example, labelled as Beyond Aid, which will touch on several themes in the DACDevelopment Assistance Committee (of the OECD) Report.

Figure 2



# MrRoy Trivedy 2015-01-12 09:31
Thanks Simon. Excellent summary and analysis. I look forward to the forthcoming IDC report on Beyond Aid.
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