Small but effective, Scottish aid seeks independence

Flags of Scotland and the United Kingdom. After the referendum, will independent Scottish aid happen? Photo by: Lawrence OP / CC BY-NC-ND

In rural Malawi, barely a handful of every hundred people have access to electricity despite millions of dollars spent on short-lived projects funded by international donors to build generation capacity in the African country.

“The legacy in Malawi is parachute in, put in a project and leave, and not track what’s happening,” Peter Dauenhauer, who coordinates the Malawi Renewable Energy Acceleration Program at the U.K.’s Strathclyde University, told Devex. “Anecdotally, a lot of these projects are failing … There’s a need to demonstrate the fundamentals of getting projects up and sustainable.”

Since 2012, Strathclyde has been working with Community Energy Scotland and a number of NGOs as part of a 2.3 million pound ($3.6 million) grant from the Scottish government to fix this problem. In coordination with local civil society, MREAP has rolled out 43 projects, mainly in schools and health centers across Malawi, each designed to demonstrate how community ownership of microgeneration can lead to a long-term solution to rural energy poverty. As part of the initiative, the Scottish government has worked with its counterparts in Malawi to draft renewable energy policies.

MREAP, whose funding ends in March 2015, is routinely cited by supporters of Scotland’s development program as proof that small-scale, targeted assistance can have a transformative impact in the developing world — a crucial argument as the government tries to make the case for the formalization and expansion of its unofficial overseas assistance budget.

Scotland in UK aid

The U.K.’s global development establishment already leans heavily on Scottish manpower.

Out of the Department for International Development’s 1,300 staff members that work in the United Kingdom, 550 are based in Abercrombie House in Scotland’s East Kilbride, one of the few Westminster departments to have such a significant presence north of the border. At times it feels like a distant satellite: It’s a running joke at Whitehall that most staffers would rather go to Kabul or Baghdad than be posted to the Glasgow suburb. As befits the gallows humor that ran around government as the result of the referendum that hung in the balance in August 2014, some staff members liked to wonder aloud whether it would become a field office to deliver programs in a future independent Scotland.

DfID’s presence in East Kilbride briefly became part of the wider tit-for-tat that came to characterize the later exchanges in the independence campaign, after pro-union members of the Scottish Parliament warned that a “yes” vote could mean the closure of Abercrombie House and the subsequent loss of more than 600 jobs. With the referendum over, the immediate threat to DfID staff in Scotland may have subsided, but a debate about Scotland’s fair share in British development funding and its role in the wider U.K. aid conversation rages on.

“International development for us was a key area during the independence campaign. We were big supporters of the 0.7 percent target, and reaching that target, and we promised that if we had the power, enshrine it in law,” Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s minister for external affairs and international development, told Devex. “If we had won the referendum ... and we had our full share of the U.K.’s DfID budget, our share would have been around the 1 billion pound mark.”

With that battle lost, Yousaf is aiming to have the British government formally recognize Scotland’s international development program, which currently has a relatively modest budget of around 10 million pounds, shared between seven countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

This program is permitted by a caveat in the 1998 Scotland Act, a piece of legislation that created a Scottish parliament and set out the powers that would be handed to the devolved administration. In theory, all international development work is the preserve of the U.K. government in Westminster, but Scottish development work has been allowed to proceed due to a loophole that permits “supporting the Crown.” Yousaf has two requests: for the program to obtain formal, legal standing, and then to give it a “commensurate” share of the DfID budget for each of the seven countries it operates in.

The argument is not simply about getting hold of resources, and Yousaf said there is a clear reason to invest in the Scottish aid program. As DfID focuses on efficiency and transparency in its partners, and as some of its multilateral partnerships come under scrutiny from the Independent Commission on Aid Effectiveness, there is an onus on the British aid agency to spend only on things that are proven to work. Scotland’s small aid program focuses on a limited number of relationships, the largest and deepest of which is its partnership with Malawi. There, Scottish universities and nongovernmental organizations work on social initiatives and renewable energy programs, which Yousaf said are all demonstrably effective.

“When the International Development Select Committee came to Scotland to do the report on independence, in their report — and it’s still there in black and white — they said the Scottish government’s interaction with NGOs is ‘exemplary’,” the Scottish aid chief said. “They say it’s an example that should be followed by the U.K. government and by DfID, who should be engaging with NGOs in Scotland a lot better.”

Many NGOs in Scotland agree.

“The Scottish government, with its very limited aid program, has been doing a very good job, we feel,” noted Gillian Wilson, chief executive of NIDOS, an umbrella group for 110 Scottish aid organizations.

Agree on status first

Ahead of the 2014 referendum and the subsequent study by the U.K. government into the devolution of powers — known as the Smith Commission — NIDOS members were split on whether to back major devolution of the budget, but the consensus view in the organization was that the status of the Scottish development program needs to be established.

“The status at the moment is that as long as the relationship with DfID and the U.K. government is fine, they’re allowed to do it,” Wilson said. “We feel that there is enough evidence that this is money very well spent and a very innovative approach that we wouldn’t want to lose, and therefore we don’t think it should be left as a loophole.”

Part of the attraction of the Scottish National Party’s message of more devolution of powers — and hence more funding — comes from the sense that a Scottish government might give more time and money to Scottish organizations, which say they often feel remote and excluded from a Westminster-centric department. Scottish NGOs have little of the scale or influence that the big international organizations or associations, such as for instance Bond, wield in London.

“I think DfID has been working better recently, but we still don’t have the level of relationships that Bond or agencies down in London have,” Wilson explained. “Some people work very well with us, but the vast majority of DfID in London doesn’t know we exist.”

A DfID representative pointed to the department’s 2013 submission to the International Development Select Committee, which showed that DfID paid 11.6 million pounds and 7.2 million pounds to Scottish suppliers in 2011-12 and 2012-13, respectively. He also said that in 2014 the department had granted funding under the so-called Aid Match scheme to two Scottish charities, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund and EMMS International.

These are positive steps, Wilson admitted, but there is a long way to go before Scottish NGOs have the same networks and relationships that their counterparts in England have.

Ireland not the model for Scottish aid

As for the increase in funding for the Scottish government, little has changed. The Smith Commission issued its report in November 2014, but there was no mention of international development. While the SNP continues to build a platform around further powers over Scotland’s international relations, other political figures in Scotland oppose dividing the U.K. development budget.

Michael McCann, Scottish Labor member of Parliament and the House of Commons’ International Development Select Committee, is unconvinced of the wisdom of carving out development financing for relatively small projects.

“Effectively we would just become a program like Ireland’s,” he told Devex. “[The Select Committee] has been [in] a lot of places in the last few years: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Zambia, Malawi, Ethiopia, South Sudan, [Myanmar]. You meet the Irish NGOs, and they do a grand job. All aid is good — any time you can help a poor person, or feed a child, or inoculate someone against a terrible disease — but the bottom line is that smaller programs won’t change that country, so that you’ll see transformational change in a generation’s time.”

The power of the British development program is in its scale and influence, McCann asserted, adding: “That’s where the mendacity of the argument for devolving it has to be highlighted. By dint of devolving such work to Scotland, or the Scottish parliament, it will actually hurt people in the developing world. Size is important. Size of programs is crucially important.”

Equally, McCann said, the idea of moving money north so that it can be spent through Scottish organizations is tantamount to the discredited practice of tied aid.

“Quite frankly, Scottish NGOs, they really should analyze what’s being proposed here,” he pointed out. “If it’s really about them getting more money, they should really consider what their principles and their objectives are. Is it about helping people, or is it about allowing their administrations and operations to continue in a bigger way?”

The Scottish government is making its case to formalize and expand its unofficial aid budget, but what would change in practical terms for aid implementers if successful? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Peter Guest

    Peter Guest is an award-winning journalist and editor working on the environment, human rights and economic development. Nominated as a Devex 40-under-40 London international development leader in 2011, he has reported from around the world for publications including Newsweek, the Guardian, Forbes, the New Statesman, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal.