The future of DfID — and UK development cooperation

A new report launched by the U.K. Parliament’s International Development Committee has recommendations on how the country’s Department for International Development should do development differently to be able to respond to modern-day challenges. Photo by: David Quinn / DfID / CC BY

To be able to respond to modern-day challenges, U.K. development agencies need to shift their focus away from aid toward greater policy coherence.

Given that the U.K. will no longer provide aid to some middle-income countries such as India, its Department for International Development should form new models of cooperation within the health, education, culture, law and science sectors. Doing so will place more emphasis on working with small organizations, rather than larger delivery partners.

These were the recommendations of a new report launched this month by the International Development Committee, where a group of influential members of Parliament argued that while aid is essential to reduce poverty and reach development and environmental goals, aid alone is not enough. Recommendations in the report were based on evidence collected over a period of seven months from more than 60 development organizations and experts.

And global development professionals should heed the messages in the report, Overseas Development Institute team leader for public goods and services Leni Wild told Devex.

“We looked at countries that had already been experiencing improved economic growth or aid spending, and still have very uneven progress in basic things,” Wild said, referring to ODI’s own research published in the same week. “It reinforces the point [that] this is not just about financing.”

The ODI expert explained that the development discourse has generally focused on convincing donors to boost their aid spending, when the conversation should instead be on “how aid works, how it can support development, how change happens in countries, and all of the different responses that need to come together to support that change.”

During the report’s launch, committee chair Sir Malcolm Bruce said the U.K.’s record in global development was “patchy,” and called on the government to “up its game and make policy coherence a central priority.”

DfID staff needs to adapt as well

Apart from policy coherence, DfID needs to make sure its staff is able to gain and hone skills appropriate to a future development setting that will require more than program management, and entail longer foreign postings, better language training and a greater focus on fragile states.

“In addition to traditional skills in program management,” Bruce noted, “DfID must ensure it has people with a strong sense of the cultural context in which they work and the ability to influence key individuals and organizations.”

Wild agreed that all development professionals — not just DfID staff — need to develop new skills to improve results. Rather than having project management skills, as required by managing programs, she said development implementers should become “facilitators.”

“It’s being able to identify who is making change happen, who has the potential to work on solving problems for themselves and to find some ways of supporting them,” she explained.

One important change will be for professionals to deliver more adaptive programming and work in more flexible and entrepreneurial ways. She also emphasized the need for development delivery to be led by local people. Commenting on ODI’s research, she said successful development examples showed “people solving problems for themselves rather than coming in and trying to manage that process externally through an aid program.”

“They were not adopting a ready-made solution or a cookie-cutter approach to development, but really adapting it. Often it involved being very entrepreneurial — sometimes taking risks or trying new things out — seeing if they work. Sometimes they fail but you learn from that,” Wild said.

Change the aid discourse

While the IDC report focused on technical recommendations for internal changes at DfID, Wild suggested it was also important to recognize that external communications about aid need to be reformed as well. ODI’s report argues that politicians and policymakers should change the nature of public debate about aid by talking more about how aid works, rather than the total amount spent.

“There’s interesting research about public attitudes and opinion on aid in the U.K., in Germany and in France that actually shows that there is an appetite to hear more about how aid works, where it doesn’t work, why, and what action can be taken … rather than hearing a very simplistic and often heartstrings-pulling appeal about the level of need,” the ODI expert said.

All public-facing development organizations, donors and nongovernmental organizations should adopt this approach, according to Wild, which she argued should also be included in post-2015 discussions.

“A new set of development goals should be an opportunity to widen that conversation with general publics around the world about how change happens, how development happens, the role of aid and other factors,” she said.

In response, DfID said it agreed with the recommendations and is already working to implement changes.

“The committee is absolutely right to identify that there are many things beyond traditional aid that drive development and help reduce poverty, including trade, tax, conflict, corruption and disease,” a DfID spokeswoman told Devex. “That is why we have directed more resources to tackle these areas with the aim of ending aid dependency once and for all.”

How can development implementers become “facilitators” and work in more flexible and entrepreneurial ways? And what new skills can be acquired to improve results in this direction? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

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.

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.