Alison Evans is Director of the Overseas Development Institute.
International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell’s impassioned ‘one year on’ speech last week was clear about the importance of a robust narrative on results. He tackled head on some of the criticisms levelled at him from various quarters in recent weeks. The response of the Conservative leadership to leaked letters and renewed frustrations over a ring-fenced aid budget has been to carry on regardless. David Cameron’s recent G8 speech reinforced the Coalition’s commitment to the world’s poorest and suggested that critics in the Conservative camp will receive short shrift in future.
If the political determination to meet our 0.7% aid commitment is to be matched by results, the debate has to move on from a polarised ‘aid works’ vs ‘aid is a waste of money’ dichotomy. ODI today releases a report that evaluates progress in development in 24 countries. It goes beyond saying ‘look what a good job we have done’ to make broader points about the role of leadership, policies, institutions and partnerships in delivering progress.
There are a number of surprising stories. Take progress in Ghana, for example, where agricultural growth averaged 5% per year during the last 25 years, ranking it among the five top performers in the world. Poverty fell from 52% of the population in 1991 to 28% in 2006 and child malnutrition has plummeted. Rwanda illustrates even more dramatically the ability to rise from the ashes. In 1994, after years of civil war and the genocide, the health care system was completely devastated. Life expectancy stood at 25 years. By 2008, it has more than doubled, and immunisation of children had risen from 25% to over 90%. In Benin, only 38% of children went to school in 1990. Today it’s over 95%, and girls have shown dramatic advances. Malawi, traditionally a laggard, has enjoyed seven years of uninterrupted growth, averaging 7% per year.
The evidence of a changing world is undeniable. We can debate at what cost these changes come – to our economies here in the northern hemisphere and sometimes to political freedom in the south. But we shouldn’t be debating whether progress is possible.
This is why Andrew Mitchell was at pains last week to reinforce the centrality of his value-for-money agenda by stating – and restating – that the focus on results is not a simple ‘numbers game’ but pivotal to delivering ‘the individual, incremental changes that will lead to deeper, more sustained change’. And he was passionate about the transformative potential of his transparency and accountability agenda in improving not just UK aid but the effectiveness of the global aid system as a whole.
As a member of the development community I listened to the speech with a mental checklist of what I wanted to hear:
First, a clear articulation of what better and more transformative UK aid looks like. Mitchell talked about innovative approaches from immunisation and GAVI, to cash-on-delivery and participatory budgeting putting more power into the hands of local communities. He talked about working through the implications of the aid reviews and to the repositioning of CDC, the Government’s Development Finance Institution, to ‘deliver pioneering investment in the poorest places in the world’. All good stuff, but not necessarily new and still a bit light on the detail. How does the Secretary of State compare the return to investment of a pound committed to vaccination and a pound committed to long-term investment in health sector reform in Uganda or the Democratic Republic of Congo? If getting more business DNA into development supports the drive for innovation, is the reverse also true? What are the solutions of old that remain highly relevant as we seek out better ways of doing things?
Second, clear recognition that there is no simple recipe for delivering results, and sustaining them is often the hardest part. On this, Mitchell was rightly unapologetic. ‘Don’t be misled into thinking our focus on results means we’ll avoid doing the harder things just because they’re difficult to measure. It doesn’t and we won’t.’ He was clear that DFID will continue to tailor solutions to specific contexts, in part through strengthened in-country teams. He made less of the challenges of sustaining change and the need to actively manage risks (not least because not all good things go together in development), but the point was well made nonetheless.
Third, a commitment to not only increase the supply of evaluation but to increase the role that evidence plays in guiding decision-making and action. Mitchell referred to the launch of ICAI and to evaluation becoming part of DFID’s core business. This we already know. But he also illustrated how better evidence can inform catalytic change, sometimes well beyond expectations.
Finally, I wanted to hear a commitment to thinking and working ‘beyond aid’ and a clear sense of ambition for UK development policy in the world. Mitchell made statements of intent here, and referenced cross-Whitehall working on the Strategic Defence and Security Review, the Trade White Paper and action on climate change, but the substance was undercooked and there is clearly much more to be done if the UK is serious about having a more policy-coherent development agenda. Mitchell has promised another speech on this. In my view he shouldn’t wait too long.
So there was a great deal in the speech to feel positive about.
If I have one major quibble it is that the speech was too light – almost wilfully so – on the global context in which the Secretary of State is seeking his paradigm shift. There was no mention of galloping energy and food prices, political transitions (or not) in North Africa and the Middle East, of the increasing intensity of natural resource scarcities and intensifying disaster and humanitarian risk.
These trends may seem a world away from the practicalities of vaccinating children and nudging a delay in girls’ age at marriage, but they are not. They shape and define the risks and prospects for change in a way that is not simply theoretical but often terrifyingly real. Such questions pose real challenges to Britain’s role in the world – one in which aid spending and the development endeavour can leverage real influence.
With the Government fully committed to the aid agenda it should give maybe a crumb of comfort to critics that evidence shows we are making progress and the knowledge and passion of the Secretary of State to try to ensure an effective and value-for-money UK development enterprise is not in doubt – even amongst the experts.