DfID is changing — but is it changing fast enough?

Simon Maxwell speaks at a high-level panel during the 2012 European Development Days. Photo by: European Union / CC BY-SA

A couple of years ago, it seemed possible that the future of the Department for International Development as a freestanding Cabinet-level department of the British government might be in play.

No longer. DfID’s role as the “conscience” of government and a focal point of Her Majesty’s government’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 DfID needs — in a rapidly evolving development context — to its mandate, organizational structure, competences and accountability.

It was not preordained that the cards should fall this way. The U.K. is now the only major development actor with a freestanding ministry responsible for both policy and implementation. As the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has reported, most countries locate development policy within ministries of foreign affairs, often with a separate agencylike structure for the implementation of projects — think the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development, for example.

Countries have been moving to integrate development more firmly within foreign policy structures, rather than the other way round. Most recently, Canada and Australia have moved in this direction.

The reasons for greater integration can be viewed cynically, as a way to co-opt development to foreign policy: to “instrumentalize” development, subverting the objective of poverty reduction to national security or trade interests.

Action at global level

No doubt, in some cases, these arguments hold sway. There are also, however, more honorable arguments. There are fewer and fewer low-income economies — 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 disease pandemics, illicit financial transfers and trade policy all fall into the category of global public goods.

“International development” is, of course, about shaping and delivering aid to help the poorest people in poor countries. It may also — and this may be a topic for a separate debate — be about supporting poverty reduction in middle-income countries. But in addition, it has to be about peacemaking and peacekeeping 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 goals framework — comprehensive in scope and applicable to all countries — is agreed in New York in September.

Is DfID fit-for-purpose in fulfilling this new role?

That question has recently been asked both by the OECD-DAC, in its Peer Review of the U.K. published in December, and by the International Development Select Committee of the U.K. House of Commons in its report on The Future of U.K. 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 in a number of ways:

1. Revise U.K. aid legislation.

In 2015, the new U.K. government will have to revise the legislation that mandates the poverty focus of U.K. aid, to ensure 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 that will need to relate to the new SDG framework.

Both the 2002 and 2006 International Development Acts will need review.

2. Spell out government objectives.

The new government will have to do better at spelling out its strategic objectives, and embed them more firmly in its own results frameworks and strategic plans. The OECD-DAC lamented the lack of a comprehensive approach to policy coherence. The Select Committee agreed.

If the government — not DfID — were to spell out its overarching objectives, then DfID 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.

3. Put the right structures in place.

The right structures will need to be in place: making better use of the U.K. Security Council, with that body taking a wide view of security issues, as is the case, for example, with the new U.S. National Security Strategy; imaginative use of cross-government funding bodies, like the International Climate Fund, run jointly by DfID, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, or the new Conflict, Stability, and Security Fund, which replaces the old Conflict Pool; and joint units, like the Trade Policy Unit set up jointly by DfID and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

4. Better monitoring, evaluation and accountability.

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, including Foreign Affairs or Climate Change, and also engaging more with its counterpart in the European Parliament.

5. Acquire new skills.

Finally, the people who work in DfID may need new skills. Historically, DfID, or its predecessor body, the Overseas Development Administration, 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 programs, including via budget support.

Now, DfID 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, DfID 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 DfID needs a capacity or competence review to help plan future staffing? And perhaps it needs its own training academy?

In March this year, Queen Elizabeth II approved legislation that guarantees international development and aid funding at 0.7 percent of gross national income This is a momentous event in global development policy, and will shape the course of U.K. policy in the years ahead.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that DfID exists solely to deliver aid — or that aid exists solely to deliver traditional services to very poor people. The development agenda is changing. DfID itself is changing. But is it changing fast enough?

Stay tuned for more U.K. election coverage and news, views and analysis on how this impacts DfID and U.K. aid in the coming weeks. To explore additional content, visit the Future of DfID series site, follow us on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDfID.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Simon Maxwell

    Simon Maxwell is executive chair of the Climate and Development Knowledge Network. He spent 10 years overseas with U.N. Development Program and the United Kingdom aid program, in Kenya, India and Bolivia, and then 15 years at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. He was director of the Overseas Development Institute. In addition to CDKN, he is chair of the European Think Tanks Group and specialist adviser to the International Development Select Committee in the U.K. Parliament. Simon Maxwell is a former president of the Development Studies Association of the U.K. and Ireland. In 2007, he was awarded a CBE for services to international development.