Two years on: How is DFID working under the Coalition Government?

30 April 2012

The two year anniversary of the Department for International Development (DFID) under the Coalition Government is upon us. What have DFID done well, and what would you like to see them change?

Girl drinking water, India. Caroline Penn / Panos.

I asked a number of my Development Horizons blog's regular readers to respond to those two questions. Nine people responded, three of which requested anonymity. Of the six who declared themselves we have Hugh Bayley MP, Member of the International Development Select Committee; Rob van den Berg, Chief of Monitoring and Evaluation, Global Environmental Fund; Catherine Bertini, Professor of Public Administration and International Affairs, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University and Former Executive Director of the World Food Programme; Pieter Bult, Senior Advisor Government Relations, UNICEF; Milena Novy-Marx, Programme Officer, MacArthur Foundation and John Wand Deputy Director for Research and International Strategy, Economics and Social Research Council

What were people pleased with?

  • The stated commitment to 0.7% of Gross National Income to Overseas Development Assistance.
  • The emphasis on evaluation and more robust evidence.
  • The emphasis on girls' empowerment.
  • The dialogue around Value for Money.
  • The engagement with more fundamental research via UK research councils
  • The increased commitment to nutrition.

Personally, I very much appreciate DFID's action leadership on health (e.g. malaria), nutrition, sanitation, gender based violence, evidence and solutions. And I am proud that the Secretary of State and the DFID leadership team are being brave in standing up for development and aid and I am impressed by how effective they are in doing it. DFID is fulfilling commitments and is trying to do the right thing. The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) is also a brave and good thing to do and DFID is being strong on corruption.

What were people worried about?

  • Will a failure to include the 0.7% target in the Queen's speech indicate a political shift?
  • The Bilateral and Multilateral Aid Reviews' methodologies (have a more open review before the refresh) and broaden scope of impact evaluations and methods.
  • Need for greater leadership in reforming the way leaders are chosen for international organisations.
  • Need for more fundamental research on humanitarian issues.
  • Need to be more nuanced in interactions with private sector.
  • Need to rethink the balance of spend to staff.
  • Need for greater focus on tertiary education.
  • Need be more mindful of the downsides of the evaluation culture, including overly complex and burdensome log frames and being drawn away from evaluations of governance policies and interventions.

Personally, I miss a little of the thought leadership. Michael Woolcock, when commenting on the World Bank President candidates, spoke of "big" development (systems, growth, pressure on planet, urbanisation etc) and "small" development (i.e. more micro, programmatic), saying both are important. I think DFID is very present and effective in the small development arena, but perhaps less influential in the big trends, paradigms, systems, foresight and anticipation spaces. For example, there seems to be a lack of attention to the quality of growth, a lack of granularity about when and why the private sector is helpful and an absence of energy about people powered initiatives. This is just an impression, perhaps reinforced by a lack of white papers, the atomisation brought on inadvertently by the evaluation culture, and the imperatives to stay on focus and on message for fear of a backlash from the UK taxpayer. It might also reflect my lack of inside knowledge about what DFID is doing.

DFID has lots of very smart development thinkers I would like to see them express themselves a little more.

Read all the comments in full in the original blog post on Development Horizons