Assessing UK Aid: Changing Lives, Delivering Results

What is one to make of the results of Changing Lives, the Department for International Development’s (DfIDs) review exercise published yesterday?

In the rush to delve into the report’s critical details, it is all too easy to overlook that the government has been pretty courageous in ring-fencing the foreign aid budget at a time when austerity measures are beginning to bite at home. It would have been easy for the government to have argued that Britain’s international welfare should be reduced to offset welfare cuts at home.

In rejecting this option the government has clearly signalled that however bad our own economic misfortune we still have a moral and prudential responsibility to help others less well of than us. That this thesis is no longer seriously contested tells us a lot about Britain’s DNA – its values and identity. 

Andrew Mitchell - Secretary of State for International Development

The Government’s decision also affects the way that others see us. Attending European and international conferences has been a bit of a trial in recent rears with Britain’s interventionist foreign policy subject to rigorous cross-examination. It was therefore a welcomed change to attend a G8/G20 Civil Society event in Canada last year and to see Britain warmly applauded for setting the development standard for the rest of the international community. 

At a time when Britain’s future ability to muster hard military power is increasingly in question, the decision to invest in the soft power of development is striking. Once again this decision tells us a lot about the type of country that Britain is becoming and the role that it hopes to play internationally. 

Before scrutinising the report’s headline messages, it is worth considering also the process and methodology underpinning the review. Changing Lives is the culmination of a six month consultation that sought to assess in what way Britain’s aid budget might be spent effectively.

You might not necessarily like the results of the exercise, you might even question some of the evaluating criteria, but unlike the rushed and resource led Strategic Defence and Security Review Changing Lives is the result of a rigorous and transparent process. There will be natural anxiety about what the review means for those 16 countries that loose out, but at least the logic underpinning the process is coherent. There are no Ark Royal surprises here.

Whether this report signals a new approach to development is far from clear. Yes there is greater clarity and focus as to the areas and countries that the Department for International Development will focus on. The scatter gun approach of old has now given way to a more targeted approach on conflict prevention and fragile states and that is to be welcomed, even if this gives rise to new anxieties about the risk of securitising aid and instrumentalising it as a tool of foreign policy.

What is less certain is what impact the commitment to a value for money based approach will have in practice. Is the pledge that Britain will be more-hard headed about making every penny count nothing more than a public relations exercise to maintain electoral support for development? Or, does it suggest the move towards creating an internal market in DfID?

Aid agencies and development practitioners will no doubt provide assessments of the impact that Changing Lives has on the ground, but as a review exercise there is much in Changing Lives that is to be welcomed.

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6 Responses to Assessing UK Aid: Changing Lives, Delivering Results

  1. I feel that the new emphasis will create a culture of numbers–recipients have to quickly perofrm well before aid is given–the Cash on Delivery idea. This will distort the meaning on development. It is fine to save millions and say that is the results to your taxpayer but inthe long run that does mena the country as a whole is better. Millions more will die. Development is about shift and changing the whole not working with numbers.

  2. Alex Jacobs says:

    Thanks for this very interesting blog, Charles. Informed comment seems to be that, on the whole, the review is to be welcomed. DFID probably can achieve more by focusing on fewer countries, building up a deeper understanding and stronger networks. The decision to axe DFID aid to Russia and China was taken long ago. As you say, the review process has been thoughtful.

    But the jury’s well and truly out on what a ‘relentless focus on results and value for money’ might actually mean. At the ODI, Jonathan Glennie suggests that one major chance is that DFID country offices have to be bid for funds on the basis of the results they expect to achieve, rather than expect last year’s budget + 5%. Which doesn’t sound like a completely bad idea.

    Among NGOs, there’s a lot of disquiet about how the results agenda will be implemented and with good reason. Done the wrong way, it could lead to endless reporting on inputs. But there’s a real opportunity to make things better and radically improve how we measure performance in aid work, as I argued in a blog today Measuring results: the demand-side revolution.

    • Thanks Alex for your reassuring comments about the post.

      I heard Mitchell talk last month about the steps towards creating an internal market in DfID – ie between DfID HQ and the country offices – but when pressed on this he appeared to suggest that this was a long term objective rather than something that might happen overnight. What sort of timescale do you think we are talking about here?

      Thanks for sending through the link to your blog. I’ve added it to my blogroll.

      I recognise that measuring performance is the holy grail in the NGO world, so I’m delighted to see that you and others are helping to shift the way that that we think about performance and who we need to consult. Not meaning to get all theological on you but I think that agencies like Tearfund are doing some good work here primarily because they see themselves as being accountable to the people they are called to serve. This point of entry appears to open up new and creative ways of thinking about performance. What do you think?

  3. Alex Jacobs says:

    I completely agree about Tearfund. I think the explicit Christian values create a powerful language for talking about service and what it really means on a personal level to help people. It’s not a guarantee of strong performance, and in Tearfund’s case I think strong leadership has played an important role, but it’s a great step in the right direction. Which raises the fascinating question of how to help secular agencies develop similar abilities to discuss personal values and inspire and reinforce commitment among their staff.

  4. Thanks Alex. Quite agree about Matthew Frost.

    Have you read the article ‘Working for God’ which is written by one of Paul Collier’s students who is currently working for the World Bank? The article takes an anthroplogical approach – embodied practice – to show how personal values help to provide motivation and in turn cut down on corruption. See the following link for details: http://ethicalcomment.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/general-synod-and-the-night-train-to-dfid/

    Since Paul Collier appears to be one of the few developement experts that Mitchell respects and likes there might be hope afterall. Would be interested to see what this means within the context of say South Sudan where you are essentially beginning with a blank sheet of paper.

  5. Pingback: Aid and reflections on our trip to Kenya | Will Cookson's Blog

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