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Tomorrowland: a strategy for Italy’s new development cooperation

This essay was published in Italian in ‘Tomorrowland: a strategy for Italy’s new development cooperation’, edited by Emilio Ciarlo, and published in 2015 by Edizioni Palinsesto. See

Italy’s initiative to reshape its aid and development cooperation is being watched with interest around Europe – and for three reasons.

First, it is not a moment too soon. Italy has lagged, at least on the aid side – see Figure 1 for the latest EUEuropean Union oda figures.

Figure 1


Second, Italy brings important assets and attributes to the table. Long history and experience in Africa. A strong research foundation on development. Technological expertise. Geopolitical positioning in relation to critical development and foreign policy challenges, especially around the Mediterranean. And a commitment to collective action, expressed in the UN, the G20, and above all the EU.

Third, Italy’s aid and development ‘project’ gives it the opportunity to be among the first to respond to a set of new development priorities, that will eventually force similar introspection and change in other countries.

What are the new priorities? In brief: the rapid fall in the number of low income countries with the strongest case for aid; the fact that many of the poorest countries are fragile states which need more than aid to progress, certainly diplomatic support and sometimes military; and the growing weight of issues like climate change or health epidemics, which require not country aid programmes, but rather coordinated action at regional or global level. None of these means that aid is not important. It is. But aid alone is no longer the right choice to deliver peace, human welfare and environmental stability around the world.

The number of low income countries has fallen, as Figure 2 illustrates, There are now only 34 such countries on the World Bank list. We know the cut-off points are arbitrary, and there is certainly a debate to be had about whether or not countries above the cut-off point need or ‘deserve’ aid. Nevertheless, the underlying truth, reflected in current debates about financing development, is that countries are increasingly able and expected to finance most of their own development needs. This is a theme, for example, of the OECD/DAC’s work on development finance, and also of recent EU reviews of the subject.

Figure 2

Of the countries in the low income category, many are fragile states. There are different definitions and lists available, but the OECDOrganisation for Economic Cooperation and Development uses the harmonised list of 36 countries contained in Figure 3. Not all these countries are low income, but the prevalence of countries afflicted by conflict is notable. Aid on its own is clearly not enough to make a difference in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, or Somalia.

Finally, events like the ebola crisis, or the debate about climate change highlight the imperative of all countries acting together in their common interest. There are many such areas of intervention, required to deliver global public goods: in addition to health and climate, other issues frequently cited include global finance and tax regimes, corruption, the arms trade, drugs and human rights. Current events suggest that migration is another such issue. The Center for Global Development’s Commitment to Development Index provides a useful annual review of performance on a range of development issues, including aid, but also trade, finance, migration, environment, security and technology. The latest scores are reproduced in Figure 4. Italy, it should be noted, comes 17th out of 27.

Figure 3


Figure 4

Commitment to Development Index


It is really important to say, again, that naming issues that cannot be solved by country-focused aid alone does not imply that aid is not needed. Quite the reverse. Humanitarian aid remains an absolute priority, and in need of further resources as the case-load increases. Lord Mark Malloch Brown has recently made this point. And the poorest people in the poorest countries absolutely demand and deserve the support of those in richer countries – in the fields of health, education, nutrition, and social protection. We should never forget that 45% of child deaths in the world can be attributed to malnutrition, and that 300,000 women a year still die in childbirth. Aid is necessary to combat moral and practical failure on this scale. And it works.

In fact, that is why the framework provided by the Millennium Development Goals has been important, and why the successor framework for the period 2015-2030 will also be valuable in focusing minds and shaping programmes. The preamble to the new SDG Framework is in Figure 4. It emphasises the triple goal of people, planet and prosperity, with an inspiring call to end poverty and hunger, combat inequalities and protect the planet.

Figure 4


Read the full text, however, and the focus on the welfare of individuals and the environment is entirely consistent with a new, more wide-ranging and more vigorous approach to development cooperation. There are repeated references to global issues like health or ecosystem management or trade regimes, but the need for global partnership really comes to the fore in the section of the text which deals with Goal 17: ‘Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development’.

‘Strengthening the means of implementation’ sounds very dry, and indeed is unlikely to capture the idealistic enthusiasm of Italy or Europe’s population. However, embedded in the text are crucial commitments: on finance, technology, capacity-building, trade, global macro-economic stability, and the quality of public-private partnerships. It is also important to emphasise that the new SDG framework is universal, applying to developed countries as well as developing.

As just one example of where this leads, consider the relationship between action on climate change and achievement of the SDGs. Research commissioned by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, CDKN, shows that a climate agreement that is less than ambitious will have a serious, negative impact on the ability of the world to deliver poverty reduction and other Sustainable Development Goals (Figure 5). This puts EUEuropean Union climate change planners and negotiators in the spotlight, as key actors in the delivery of the SDGs.

Figure 5


The new development agenda represents a challenge to traditional development agencies, especially those which have focused only on managing aid projects in developing countries. Are such agencies ‘fit-for-purpose’ in a new world? Or do they need to change? How these questions are answered will shape Italy’s reform programme, and that of many other countries. No wonder the OECD/DAC has taken an interest in the subject.

The Overseas Development Institute has also had a programme of work on the development agency of the future, and has concluded that there is no one model for organising development cooperation. Certainly, it is not the case that having a cross-cutting Cabinet-level Department, like the UK’s Department for International Development, despite its many advantages, is the only answer. Instead, it may be more appropriate to focus on principles. For a meeting on this subject in 2014, we proposed the following:

‘The test of any government system is whether it can deal efficiently and effectively with the challenges it faces. In this case, the system needs to deliver aid at country level, integrate the instruments of foreign policy in complex political emergencies, and help broker the global deals that are necessary to provide global public goods. There are many different models of organisation and path dependency is an important determinant of institutional design. Nevertheless, there are core principles at stake.

 First, both national interest and development coherence require that a joined-up approach be in place.

Second, these approaches need to be articulated, possibly in the form of national strategies.

Third, different instruments need to be integrated, but without sacrificing the special characteristics of each. In particular, the principles of humanitarian aid, including impartiality, must be protected.

Fourth, there needs to be strong leadership from the centre, to prevent inter-institutional conflict.

Fifth, the necessary skills need to be in place, both at country level and internationally. Sixth, there needs to be constant assessment of performance, including through monitoring and evaluation.’

The UK Parliament’s Select Committee on International Development, a cross-party body, has also undertaken a systematic review of the topic. It reached some important conclusions, that will resonate elsewhere.

First, the Committee strongly endorsed the need for aid to continue, in low income countries, and during a period of transition in middle income countries. ‘Aid absolutely still matters’, it said ‘notably for humanitarian purposes and to support poverty reduction and human development in low-income countries.’ This was a necessary statement, because the UK commitment to reaching the 0.7 target, now enshrined in legislation, has been controversial in some circles. Strong cross-party support from the body of parliament helps to shore-up the political will needed to maintain the commitment.

Second, the Committee recognised the emergence of a new development agenda. It received both written and oral evidence on a wide range of topics, summarised in Figure 6. These included most of the topics already mentioned. Perhaps reflecting the current priorities of DFIDDepartment for International Development ministers, there was an especially strong focus on the role of the private sector in development.

Figure 6

Issues raised in evidence to the Select Committee


Third, the Committee agreed with the Conclusion of the last DAC Peer Review of the UK, in 2014, that the UK had performed extremely well on some aspects of the wider agenda – the UK’s work on women and girls was cited as an example, as was work on health, and science and technology. On the other hand, the Committee also endorsed the view of the DACDevelopment Assistance Committee (of the OECD) Peer Review, that the UK lacked a comprehensive strategy on what is often called ‘Policy Coherence for Development’. The DACDevelopment Assistance Committee (of the OECD) observed that

‘The lack of a comprehensive approach to ensuring its development efforts are not undermined by other government policies means potential incoherence in other policy areas can be overlooked. It also means opportunities might be missed for stakeholders to provide evidence on and solutions to problems of incoherence. For instance, little has been done to address potential links between migration policy and development. In addition to managing trade-offs, a more systematic approach would help the UK to tap positive synergies across policy agendas, as it has started to do with trade and development. The UK also does not appear to be investing in building a knowledge base about the impacts of UK policies on developing countries in order to enable more informed decisions. In dialogue with developing country partners, it could do more to increase understanding of the potential effects of different UK policies on key barriers to development and to use the evidence acquired to raise awareness of the need for greater coherence.’

Fourth, the Committee reviewed alternative models of governance, noting that the UK was now alone in having a Cabinet-level Department with both policy and implementation responsibility, across the range of development and humanitarian issues. It accepted the findings of research that suggested the form of governance was less important than the political direction. It concluded that in the particular circumstances of the UK, the creation of DFIDDepartment for International Development had brought many benefits, and that it would be counter-productive to merge DFIDDepartment for International Development into the Foreign Office, or adopt any other model. Witnesses strongly agreed with this conclusion.

Fifth, however, the Committee noted that a number of requirements had to be met if development cooperation was to be managed successfully by a free-standing development agency. Probably, these pre-conditions are relevant whatever the organisational form:

  • There must be legislation, to set out the purposes of development cooperation (not just aid). This is necessary to protect the development programme from predation by other Departments, and also to give the political leadership of the development programme the necessary authority.
  • It is valuable to have a cross-Government strategy and results framework, which articulates high-level objectives and set standards. The SDG Framework could be the basis for such an exercise.
  • Mechanisms are needed for policy review and coordination cross Government, perhaps in the form of ex-ante impact studies or spillover analysis.
  • The right instruments are needed, including cross-Departmental funds or budgets. In the UK, two such are the International Climate Fund, jointly ‘owned’ by the Departments of Development, Environment and Climate Change; and the Conflcit, Stability and Security Fund, jointly owned by Development, Defence and the Fofeign Office.
  • The right competences are needed with the Development Department, especially those needed to work across Government and to manage global negotiations.
  • And, finally, reporting needs to be adjusted, to reflect high-level objectives beyond aid.

Sixth, the Committee recognised that its own work would have to evolve in response to a new agenda, in order to fulfil its primary mandate of holding the Government to account. For example, it would have to work more with other Committees.

There are obvious risks to Italy, and to other countries, in adopting a new approach to development. The quality of aid delivery may suffer if the exclusive emphasis on results and value-for-money is diluted. There may be pressures to spend aid money in ways that do not benefit the poorest directly – or to open the floodgates of claims on the aid budget by working in the DACDevelopment Assistance Committee (of the OECD) to amend the definitions of what and what is not permissible to claim as aid spending. Expectations may be set too high, ignoring the fact that decisions on non-aid policy are subject to many competing pressures, with complex political and technical trade-offs to be considered.

Nevertheless, the exigencies of the modern world demand new thinking – which is why the Italian demarche in this area marks a notable staging point in and for Europe. It is commonplace to talk of the threats the world faces: related to climate change, security, the problems of an ageing society, the impact of technology on jobs, pandemics, and so on. But the world is also the site of opportunity: to harness new technologies for the common good; to build the global institutions of solidarity that will inoculate us against future shocks; and to help individuals everywhere to fulfil their potential and their dreams. These have always been the goals of development policy. Surely they are now more relevant than ever.

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