Simon Maxwell

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dfidWhat kind of shape is DFIDDepartment for International Development in?

An upbeat and optimistic speech by the Secretary of State, Andrew Mitchell, plus the appointment of a popular insider, Mark Lowcock, as Permanent Secretary - two events which will have boosted DFID. Certainly, there was a positive buzz at the Mitchell speech, the day before Lowcock’s appointment was announced – among NGOs in the audience, but also among senior civil servants.

The speech makes a strong case for the effectiveness of aid in reducing poverty. It illuminates Andrew Mitchell’s commitment to a results-based approach with many specific examples – vaccination, education for girls, mobile banking, legal services. In answering questions, he made the important point that the case for aid is best made not by talking about billions of dollars or percentages of GNP, but about the impact of individual measures on individual people. For example, putting a girl into school in Ethiopia costs £20, and girls who benefit from a year’s extra schooling earn an extra 10-20%, he said, ploughed back into better nutrition and better schooling for the girls’ own children: a virtuous circle which ‘in turn, leads to better jobs, higher wages, increased taxes, (and) more effective public services’. There is a debate to be had about the results agenda, which we’ll come to in a second, but I’m sure it’s true that stories like this help make the case.

Making the case is not straightforward, though. In writing about the challenge of communicating development, I suggested that the simple stories needed for communication can obscure real world complexity. I called this the ‘complexity paradox’, one of five that needed to be addressed. I proposed a ten-point programme, and the first one was this: that Ministers should ‘move up the value chain’, taking people on a journey from simple images and stories to more complex understanding.

Andrew Mitchell is sensitive to this point, I would say, and, in one particular sense, is offering a nuanced interpretation of the results agenda, explicitly rejecting ‘accountancy and bean-counting’. It is important that political process and institution-building be recognised, for example, that the high cost of working in post-conflict environments be acknowledged, that the desire for short-term results be tempered with an appreciation of the long-term nature of development work, and that sufficient room be left for experimentation and possible failure. Andrew Mitchell made all these points. There is fertile common ground here, it seems to me, where the political imperative of a focus on results can meet the professional imperative of managing complexity. Some at the meeting felt Andrew Mitchell had developed a more sophisticated narrative on results than in some of his earlier contributions. It will be interesting to see how this goes down with the critics of a narrow approach to the measurement of results – and also how an adjusted narrative is reflected in the work of the Independent Commission on Aid Impact.

The journey is about more than a nuanced narrative on results. Making the case for wider, cross-Government engagement beyond aid is also important (point 4 of my ten-point programme, since you ask!). Here, Andrew Mitchell made a few points, referring to his role on the National Security Council, for example, but promised a more complete speech in the autumn. This will be one to watch, since it will throw light on the question of the steps needed for DFIDDepartment for International Development to continue being a ‘development ministry’ rather than simply being an ‘aid agency’.

There are some other unresolved issues, or section headings for the autumn speech. Quite a few questions remain to be resolved about how the bilateral, multilateral and humanitarian reviews fit together, including the relative balance between multilateral and bilateral funding. More thinking is needed on whether and how to aid middle income countries. There is further work to do on climate change, especially climate finance. And no doubt there will be long-term lessons from and implications of the Arab Spring. Internally, the pressure on administration costs is not trivial. How will they manage, I wonder, when everyone has been moved to East Kilbride, and Scotland becomes independent?!

Still, and as I said in the meeting, imagine where we might have been without strong leadership from the top of the Coalition and without strong and genuine ministerial enthusiasm. In answer to the headline question in my title, I would say DFIDDepartment for International Development is in pretty good shape. If you agree or disagree, let me know.

There are risks, of course, and in the meeting I asked Andrew Mitchell about those. Some are domestic, and we should definitely celebrate the unwavering commitment to 0.7 (while watching carefully for any back-sliding or watering down of definitions, for example to allow spending on the military). Andrew Mitchell did not mention 0.7 in his speech, but re-confirmed the commitment when I asked. Some of the risks are related to the poor performance of other donors, which opens the possibility of leaving UK ministers exposed. Some are related to corruption, poor governance or human rights abuse in developing countries, especially the 27 countries where DFID’s bilateral programme will be concentrated. And some lie on the ground, in places like Afghanistan and Libya. Does Andrew Mitchell have a personal, political risk register, I wonder? And what can we do to help him stay on the front foot?

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