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Putting Dogma Before Development: DFID RIP

There are several motivations why, as a country, we might want to invest in overseas development, let me rehearse some of them. 

Perhaps it is a purely altruistic motive. We see poverty; health and  gender inequality, hunger, and our basic human compassion is drawn to help our fellow human beings. 

Considering our economy flourished at a time of slavery and colonialism, some of the key institutions in our country were founded by money from those sources. We could look at the heritage of colonialism, fractured continents with boundaries established in Europe to suit European; needs, economies, business and jingoistic geo-political competition .  We might feel an urge to assist, possibly through a positive commitment  to be a part of the solution to issues , in our past,  we were instrumental in causing.

We could also look at Africa and see a doubling of the population there, explainable, not because they are uniquely irresponsible in their development path but because it so closely follows the same path European countries took in the 19th and 20th Centuries.  If this is the  next huge market after China and India we could conclude that there is enlightened self interest in a safe,  secure and viable development of that market .

All of those are legitimate. You might feel swayed to one or the other depending upon your background, experience, priorities and sentiments, or you might feel that all of them, in fact, are persuasive . 

To suggest however that we are excused from the debate because the overwhelming evidence of injustice caused, relates to a Country of which Scotland is just one part,  both denies our unique potential to contribute in this area and of course, history . 

Scotland’s entrepreneurs and Empire administrators were enthusiastic partners in the colonial experiment and we have the evidence in our street names monuments and institutions to prove it. But equally Scotland’s international  development sector, its research institutions and academia are significantly engaged with initiatives that are  world leading, innovative and embrace their partners in countries that are more vulnerable to social environmental and economic threats. 

Taking its roots in the ODM inspired initiative of the 1964 – 1970 Labour Government,  the Department for International Development ( DFID) was established in 1997.  DFID’s  remit was  “to promote sustainable development and eliminate world poverty”.As such it was an enthusiastic engager with similar initiatives around the world and promoting GDP based financial support.

I would never make the claim that DFID was perfect and I will be up front and say that my own organisation received funding from it, but I can offer an honest opinion that in my time working with them they punched considerably above their weight. DFID’s opinion was sought by players with considerably more cash in  their pockets than the British Government and rightly so. The values they worked to and their ethical approach was something that meant they were often at the top table, more often than not, at the head of it. 

DFID is a function of Government so it would be naive to suggest that it didn’t reflect political interests but it was able to stand astride the interests of our country and those that benefited from  our funding, if not uniquely, then certainly with respect. 

I can recall a dinner in 2011 with one of the highest ranking Diplomats in  the African Union. Discussing the difference between the Foreign Office’s approach and DFID’s,  a committed Anglophile,  he smiled wryly. He spoke of  the post colonial  delusion of British exceptionalism that was believed,  possibly exclusively,   by the British and which he saw as  holding us back as a nation from being truly exceptional. DFID on the other hand he saw as a real British achievement, something however flawed it might be, still very special, much trusted and a gift, from our nation, to the World. 

Now it is to go, to be subsumed into what the Prime  Minister calls  a super department potentially responsible for around 80 percent of UK aid spending. The rational  being the UK is seeking to forge a place on the international stage independent from the EU, including its development cooperation programmes. 

Speaking from personal experience , ironically, many people we sought to influence saw DFID’s programmes as more effective than those of Europe.

But why does this matter ? 

First of all not all of the richest nations do commit to spending a fixed proportion of their GDP to international development but  of those  that do, COVID19 will affect the value of that investment.

It is logical.  If your GDP shrinks by 10% and you have a fixed percentage promise to fulfil then  the cash value of that goes down by 10%. So at a time when poor countries  are being hit by the unexpected burden of coronavirus  they will see Aid support significantly cut. In these circumstances how and what  Britain spends on international development, is of vital importance. 

The irony of course is that the Virus was probably exported to them from China, USA and Europe. Follow the transport hubs and you will see what I mean . 

Then there is intent . 

DFID’s intent is clear,  it is in what they stand for,  “sustainability …eliminate world poverty .”

The Prime Minister made this comment in announcing that FCO And DFID would merge:

 “This is exactly the moment when we must mobilise every one of our national assets, including our aid budget and expertise, to safeguard British interests and values overseas.”

No one who scorns  right wing “ America First “ rhetoric of an increasingly deluded and isolated President of the USA can stand up and defend the “Britain First “ rhetoric of our PM. They are the same, and I am happy to defend that statement. Bring it on. If there is logic,  let it be seen and debated. 

There have been attacks on DFID for years from right wing media usually misrepresenting  initiatives that are seen outside of the UK as class leading innovators and extraordinary value for money. Now they are getting something that they have advocated for long and hard -“putting British interests first”.  The PM referred to  aid through DFID as a “cashpoint in the sky” without quoting one iota of evidence .

Some will say the media have a point, but it depends on what you mean and  does it work? 

One of the suggestions is that we will move some of our funding away from traditional partners in Africa and towards  Eastern European countries. Why fund Zambia and Tanzania when Ukraine and West Balkans are of more strategic value ? What strategic value ? Economic,  political security? We aren’t given to know other than it will be in the hands of Domnic Raab to decide. Comforting? 

The logical vacuum  of this notion is pretty self evident. Did I mention that Africa will see a doubling of its market size in the next 50 years ? Who has primacy  in offering aid to Eastern Europe ? Other than military aid from the USA , it is  the EU, and we cant compete with their investment levels or for that matter the traditional sentiment between their governments and Brussels. Odd this, but they all seem to want to join the EU? I wonder which way they will lean ? 

Hardly surprising really given that Britain’s  approach has been to look elsewhere and stress the “ Special Relationship.” What people ask of someone coming late to the party is “ what size bottle did you bring?” Ours spread around Eastern Europe isn’t likely to fill too many glasses.

What benefits can we expect  ?

Do  we make things that Eastern European nations will want to buy over  the offerings of our counterparts in China, Germany France? 

What is the estimated return on  the decision to dispose  of our good will in a fast developing area of the world where we have  influenced for decades in favour of one which has much more persuasive partners closer to hand ?  As Americans might  say – “who has done the Math ?” 

I am not against investment in Eastern Europe but for the right motivation.

Doubtless,  beyond the self interest  defence, we  will see comments like “ ah but it is going to be spent the same way , really.” Shall we fact check that ? Two areas to compare, poverty and gender inequality . 

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office spends 22% of its budget on the countries that are assessed as being low income and least developed, DFID spends 61%.

DFID’s leading work on gender inequality is widely praised as being amongst the most impactful in dealing with poverty. The cost to return is extraordinary . They  have spent over the last few years between 48% and 59% of their budget in this area. In 2016 – 2018 FCO aid averaged  1% in this area and  it went up to nearly a quarter in 2019. 

I can’t imagine how the dedicated Civil  Servants and development professionals in East Kilbride feel about this. Thankfully I don’t have to,  their Union the FDA said this:- 

“Staff have a fear for initial security in the usual way, but beyond that, there’s a fear that their new work will be quite different from what they’re doing now. They have a strong professional commitment to poverty reduction, and that’s why they’re in the department; they have decades’ worth of experience in that field. There’s a real concern any work they’re deployed to now will be very different.”

We do however have an insight from Canada and Australia on how things went for them when they made the same change . Badly . 

I watched with astonishment as the Canadian Aid Agency lost all position and respect having vied with DFID as thought leaders. Seven years on Australia still notes that it is a work in progress melding very different cultures and motivation . 

Someone said to me once  “ Why you want to wake up in the morning plays a very significant part in  how productive you are during the day .” 

What I can add from a personal perspective is that I could not have done my job  if it  had been funded by the FCO in a British interests first perspective. We used private and public monies to create development partnerships in a particular  sector. I was allowed into the offices of Ministers, Board rooms of companies and had access to top African Union diplomats because the credentials I brought with me were backed by an understanding of DFID and the other donors as honest brokers. To add  the new emphasis to this equation is to erect a barrier to trust . The doors would have remained shut.

For Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and David Cameron to come to a point of agreement against your position takes talent. Mr Johnson has achieved this  but I would want to make another point . 

I started this article examining  three possible motivations for investment in international development. Creatively, this new approach manages to offer failure in all three . It certainly isn’t altruistic, it doesn’t  deal with our legacy and it has no logic for self interest. 

Typically in writing here I offer a balanced view, forgive me if I depart from that now. 

Devoid of political scrutiny this is an act of;  unthought out, politically motivated,   vandalism .

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3 replies »

  1. Mornin’ Steve – I keep tagging things on to your articles! I hope that’s OK with you – if not, Fiona can take it away again.
    i would have just put a link, but I can’t work out how to do that, with this kind of email. As it is, I have somehow lost the pictures.
    Here it is……….

    Hi Bernie,
    I was listening to the radio on Monday when these words hit me really hard: ‘Our country is like a really old house. I love old houses. But old houses need a lot of work. And the work is never done. And that’s what our country is like. And you may not want to go into that basement, but if you really don’t go into that basement, it’s at your own peril.’ [1]
    They came from Isabel Wilkerson, an American journalist who was talking about how understanding history (in this case slavery and the Great Migration) helps us make sense of the present (racism and police violence). I found myself thinking: What’s in Europe’s basement? Are we going in there?
    There are different kinds of histories and basements – lots of local ones, national ones, and one big shared European basement. The main rooms within that are arguably the two big wars that started in Europe and our history of colonialism. Whereas some European countries have made efforts to confront the history of the wars, it’s harder to find examples of where our colonial past has been properly reckoned with.
    One month ago, the basement doors were blown wide open in the US and beyond by the murder of George Floyd. For the first time in a long time, we are forced to confront the ugliest parts of our histories, of our stories, of our national identities. In the US, symbols of historical racism are being removed from public spaces, and the same is happening in Europe – particularly with regard to our colonial history.
    Take Belgium for example: when I came here in 2001, I couldn’t quite figure out how King Leopold II, the man who organised an industry of murder and maiming of literally millions of Congolese people, was still being honoured in statues all over the country. As a direct response to the confrontation we now face with our histories, the place of these statues is being questioned, in Belgium, Italy, the UK and beyond. By venturing into the basement and confronting what exists there, we are healing our societies and being more honest with ourselves.

    This statue of Leopold II in Antwerp was removed a couple of weeks ago after it was vandalised and set on fire. Other statues of Leopold II across Belgium are also being challenged and vandalised.
    A lot of bravery is needed to step into that basement in the name of people, rights and healing. It’s also needed in the name of the planet. For many, it is really uncomfortable to confront how we’ve messed up our planet. It’s hard to acknowledge the fact that not so long ago we adopted a system that celebrates consumption and economic growth at the cost of ever more emissions, climate change and ever greater chances of planetary collapse.
    Colonialism underpins our capitalist economic model – so much of our economic system and wealth was built and financed through colonial brutality. Despite these systems ravaging our planet for decades, they have been all but dismantled in a period of weeks due to the COVID-19 crisis. That is why the green recovery is so key, to right those wrongs, and fix this old house, and come to terms with some of the rooms in the basement.
    At the EU level, some politicians are asking brave questions that challenge our economic model. European Prime Ministers are in the middle of agreeing a plan about how we recover economically from COVID-19. Their Green and Just Recovery Plan for Europe is the biggest chance in generations to build a whole new economy – one that benefits people by supporting small business and job creation, accessible public transport, accessible energy-efficient homes and cuts emissions drastically.
    Last week we targeted European Prime Ministers’ meeting on Zoom, while they were deciding how to finance the recovery plan. But the so-called “frugals” – Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark – spoke out against solidarity at the meeting.

    Xavier Bettel, Prime Minister of Luxembourg, posted a tweet about EU Prime Ministers’ recent Zoom meeting on how to finance the recovery plan
    We are going to need to apply some friendly pressure on the frugals in the months to come. If they continue to oppose solidarity, then those hit hardest by the COVID crisis – the health workers, the ones who lost their jobs, those at risk of losing their job – will not have the means to recover from the most enormous economic shock Europe has seen in decades.
    We won’t stand for Austerity 2.0 and we must make this clear just before the next EU Summit on July 17, to make sure all of our European governments agree to a big recovery fund.
    Europe and the world need to open our basement doors. Owning up to the failures of the past is our best chance of healing and of survival in future. Isabel Wilkerson also said “Whatever you are ignoring is not going to go away. Whatever you’re ignoring will be there to be reckoned with until you reckon with it. And I think that that’s what we’re called upon to do where we are right now.” [2] Wise words. Let’s follow them.
    Laura, Executive Director, WeMove Europe

    References:
    [1, 2] https://onbeing.org/programs/isabel-wilkerson-this-history-is-long-this-history-is-deep/

    WeMove Europe is an independent and values-based organisation that seeks to build people power to transform Europe in the name of our community, future generations and the planet. To unsubscribe from WeMove Europe, please click here. To unsubscribe from WeMove Europe, please click here.
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  2. Your article puts me in mind of something else. Years ago, I worked for The Nature Conservancy Council, in Mid-Wales, and I loved my job – it was the best job I ever had.
    Then, in 1991, following the passage of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Act 1991, the Nature Conservancy Council was divided into three, and The Welsh part was amalgamated with the Welsh part of the Countryside Commission for England and Wales to become the Countryside Council for Wales.
    Here’s how I saw this change – The Nature Conservancy Council, did what it said in the title – tried to conserve nature – establishing Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and managing Reserves, as much as possible, as wild places for wildlife.
    The Countryside Commission/Countryside Council, was mainly interested in managing the countryside as recreational space for humans. That’s how I saw it, and see it, anyway.
    This is putting it very much in a nutshell, but, I think it was mainly true.
    At least one of the Reserve workers resigned, from a job which he was devoted to, and was very good at, because he wasn’t prepared to work with that different approach to the natural world.
    I, personally, lost my hob because, of course, as two organizations amalgamated, there was duplication of roles, as mine was a short term contract – I had to go. As the Boss in Bangor said – “Fifteen months experience, gone.”
    So – you’ll see why what you write resonates with that situation, for me. It will mean a different attitude, with a different emphasis, and those working in that set up, will need to have a different attitude and emphasis, too. If they were working for that organization because of a commitment to helping the world – well…………….
    I’ll now stop hi-jacking your article!

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