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.
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.