Former DFID political adviser on UK aid direction and his new role at Plan

Simon Bishop, newly appointed director of policy and programs at Plan International U.K. Photo by: Plan UK

Before our interview, Simon Bishop — recently appointed director of policy and programs at Plan International U.K. — insists that the topic of his previous employer is off-limits.

As a special political adviser to the United Kingdom’s former Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening, Bishop spent two and a half years providing political, policy and media advice that shaped the direction of the government’s development strategy.

Although some of the controversial policies announced by the Department for International Development since Greening and Bishop left in July last year may have been gestating while he was in the post, Bishop refuses to comment on them. “Mischievous journalists can turn that into nice headlines,” he told Devex. “I've got to be careful.”

Bishop left the government not long after the U.K.’s new prime minister, Theresa May, took over, and Greening moved to the Department for Education as part of a ministerial reshuffle. Bishop followed, at first — but after only a week, he changed his mind.

“I needed to follow my passion for international development,” he said. His DFID role was his first in government, after 10 years working for major development players including the United Nations Foundation. His insider knowledge made him an asset among development organizations. But Bishop insists it’s his past experience and knowledge that’s most valuable — he can’t call up DFID and demand favours, he said.

Bishop was appointed to his new role at Plan at the end of last year and spoke to Devex four months into the job from his office at the charity's London headquarters. He spoke without referring to notes — despite it being his first media interview — and it was clear from the beginning that he was keen to demonstrate his passion for Plan International U.K.'s campaigns.

But would he say anything about DFID?

Aid & trade, payment by results

What he did say chimed with some of the department's current policies. One area of concern for some development professionals has been DFID’s increasing emphasis on “payment by results,” whereby organizations receive some or all of the agreed funding only after demonstrating that results have been met. Bishop said this is “one funding instrument of many,” and a way the sector can drive better value for money. Plan International U.K. recently completed a three-year water and sanitation programme in Bangladesh and Pakistan worth 25 million pounds ($30.9 million) in DFID investment — but only if it delivers results.

“[For Plan], being seen in the sector as a leader in payment by results is a priority.”

— Simon Bishop, director of policy and programs at Plan International U.K.

“We’re waiting on an independent survey to find out exactly what the final figure is, but we’re confident it will be the vast majority,” said Bishop. The fact that DFID has promised another 13.5 million pounds ($16.7 million) after a further three years suggests he might be right. Bishop wants the organization to deliver more work under “payment by results” arrangements in the future. “Being seen in the sector as a leader in that area is a priority,” he said.

Bishop also backed DFID’s “trade and aid” agenda. In January, Development Secretary Priti Patel published the department's first economic development strategy. It aims to couple aid with job creation and to increase trade with poor countries. “Working on that is absolutely right as far as I'm concerned, as part of an holistic approach to international development,” said Bishop. He argued that Africa, for example, needs “trillions not billions” of investment if global goals are to be achieved, an impossible task through “traditional aid.”

“We can help with development finance institutions and other things like that ... but it will largely have to come from the private sector,” he said. “The only long-term sustainable way to escape poverty is by creating jobs and economic growth.”

As such, Bishop sees sound logic in DFID's plans to invest more money through its private equity arm, the CDC, formerly known as the Commonwealth Development Corporation. In February, the U.K. government gave DFID permission to increase the total amount of aid spent through CDC from 1.5 billion pounds ($1.85 billion) to 6 billion pounds ($7.4 billion). Members of Parliament criticized the organization’s use of tax havens and allegedly risk-averse investments. Bishop refused to comment specifically, but said generally that development finance institutions such as CDC should be part of Britain’s aid portfolio.

“The British taxpayer gets a 3 percent return through CDC, which is a good, sustainable way of using aid,” he said. “Of course it's important they invest in the right ways, in the right things and places to alleviate poverty,” he added.

Combining public and private, domestic and international

“The British taxpayer gets a 3 percent return through CDC, which is a good, sustainable way of using aid.” 

Bishop's experience working in private sector development has shaped his belief in public-private partnerships, beginning with his first major job in development at the Shell Foundation. His role there followed academic achievements, including studying for Master’s degrees from Columbia University in journalism and international affairs as a Fulbright scholar. After a stint as a BBC correspondent in Chicago, Bishop decided he wanted to turn to development.  

He “badgered” the Shell Foundation for six months for a job, he said, and described his experience there as a “eureka moment.”

“Its philosophy was bringing the best of the private sector to international development — business development, acumen, models and ideas,” he said.

Bishop ran campaigns for the foundation in India to convince people to adopt cleaner cookstoves. The project’s success led him to set up the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves with the United Nations Foundation in 2010. “It’s a fantastically successful organization that has raised several hundred million dollars for the sector. Hillary Clinton was chair of its leadership committee until she ran [for U.S. president],” he said proudly. Bishop hopes to replicate public-private models at Plan International U.K. The organization already partners with multinational corporations such as Unilever.

Bishop left the United Nations Foundation in 2012 to become strategy adviser at The Prince’s Charities — an organization coordinating 17 U.K.-focused charities founded by Prince Charles. But the DFID opening tempted him back to international issues.

“Justine [Greening] had been in post for about a year and was looking for a policy expert to help her shape a strategic direction,” he said. He had previous experience in politics, having worked for the Conservative Party within the Greater London Authority. “It was a phenomenal opportunity — a real privilege to have the chance to do it,” he said of the DFID role.

Plan International UK CEO on what makes private partnerships work

Plan International has partnered with Barclays on savings products, Credit Suisse on financial education programs, and Unilever on WASH initiatives. Plan International U.K.'s chief executive officer, Tanya Barron, sat down with Devex at the Asian Development Bank's 50th annual meeting to explain what they look for in a corporate partner, and why this may well be the key to sustainable change.

Bishop believes that while poverty relief should be the priority, overseas development goals can be married with domestic objectives. DFID’s new economic plan hopes that job creation in economically weak territories will reduce migration to Britain.

“[The] World Bank says we need to create 50,000 jobs every day from now until 2035,” he quoted. “If we can create jobs in parts of Africa, that's great for those individuals, for their communities, and it's removing one of the development drivers of migration. We can do both.”

He added that: “All the aid that Britain spends, or that Plan does, you can argue is in Britain’s national interests. I don’t see the two as a particular issue … They’re two sides of the same coin ... We can help the poorest people and by doing that we can also help ourselves.”

Bishop is also fully behind the U.K. government's plans to spread aid funding across Whitehall departments. While some development professionals argue that departments working mostly on domestic issues may not understand how to best deliver in developing countries, Bishop disagrees.

“If you step back and look at the development drivers — what's going to reduce poverty over the next 15 years — aid will be important,” he said. “But so will remittances … domestic resource mobilization, changes in global and local tax and trade rules. Then there are the big challenges like terrorism, migration and climate change, which don't respect country borders, nor departmental borders. The expertise to tackle those exists across all of Whitehall.”

Bishop saw such an approach first-hand at DFID, in its response to the West African Ebola crisis, when both the U.K. military and National Health Service got involved. He describes the effort as “truly the best of British development.” Bishop played down his contribution — having helped Greening and her team prepare for emergency meetings with the Prime Minister to shape the U.K.’s strategy — but said the Ebola response is one of his proudest.

“I’m very aware I was a long way away from the courage many DFID workers were showing on the ground in Sierra Leone where they were basically putting their lives on the line every day,” he said. “Nevertheless, there’s a role to help coordinate and make sure the government machine works as effectively as possible.”

Looking ahead

Now Bishop is helping Plan International U.K. as it works on several projects with other U.K. ministries, including a Foreign & Commonwealth Office-funded project in Egypt, focused on locals and Syrian refugees. Though Bishop admitted he is still getting to grips with the organization’s operations, he told Devex he has a vision to grow the charity’s focus on girls’ rights. He beamed as he described how the parliament of Malawi recently outlawed child marriage. The decision followed years of Plan International U.K. campaigning in the country.

Looking out the window as he spoke, it was clear that Plan International U.K.’s office in London’s tech hub in Shoreditch has also inspired Bishop. He said he often imagines collaborating with the start-ups and entrepreneurs working on his doorstep. “There must be hundreds of technologies that could apply to poor people being catalysed within 500 meters of where we’re sitting,” he said.

Bishop also hopes to increase Plan’s work in humanitarian aid, pointing to the current issue of food security in Africa. “It’s going to be a very difficult year,” he said. “The humanitarian system was already creaking before this latest food insecurity [issue] arose, so it's going to struggle.”

“The 0.7% commitment has built up over decades and I don't think that's going to go away quickly."

Nevertheless, he is confident the British development sector has a prosperous future ahead. “There is this wonderful British tradition of doing humanitarian work and I think that will continue long into the future,” he said. He believes this despite pressure from some parts of the British parliament and public to abolish a commitment to spend 0.7 percent of gross national income on aid. “That commitment has built up over decades and I don’t think that’s going to go away quickly,” he said, confidently. “But it’s not for me [to say] anymore — I’m outside government now.”

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DFID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDFID.

About the author

  • Gabriella Jóźwiak

    Gabriella Jóźwiak is an award-winning journalist based in London. Her work on issues and policies affecting children and young people in developing countries and the U.K. has been published in national newspapers and magazines. Having worked in-house for domestic and international development charities, Jóźwiak has a keen interest in organizational development, and has worked as a journalist in several countries across West Africa and South America.