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Engaging in and with emerging powers

Written by Daniel Harris

In a speech last Wednesday at Chatham House, UK Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell sketched out his vision of the relationship between emerging powers and the international development agenda. That global  changes over the last 20 years (including, but not limited to the rise of key Asian powers) require changes to the way in which the UK can and should approach development is largely uncontroversial. So too is the thrust of Mitchell’s argument: namely that new types of engagement, including new and more equal partnerships, are a key component of what is needed to further reduce poverty in emerging powers and in the poorest countries and to address a broad range of global challenges. The conclusion that the UK aid programme is to remain active in India, while coming to a close in China is likely to spark far more debate. This decision, along with the Minister’s call for new ways of thinking and, potentially, new kinds of skills, reveals some of the tensions, contradictions and questions with which the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and other traditional donors are grappling. A few thoughts on the areas addressed in the Minister’s speech are provided below.

On working in emerging powers to achieve developmental outcomes
Mitchell’s vision of ‘beyond-aid’ engagement through ‘trade in ideas and expertise’, research support, brokering political support and creating coalitions is indeed likely to be critical in improving donor effectiveness in traditional powers. That the value of DFID’s presence in-country is about more than the money in its pocket is particularly true where the added value of a pound/dollar/euro of traditional ‘aid’ is limited for one reason or another. Those who have argued for reducing or eliminating DFID’s presence in middle income countries such as India or China on purely financial grounds fail to appreciate this point.

Yet the success of these alternative types of engagement depends significantly on the ability to develop, maintain and leverage networks of contacts within national policy communities and with other donor partners. It would, therefore, require more skilled people (strategists as well as specialists) at a time when the administration budget is being cut. While DFID can arguably get around its administrative cap by hiring local staff and putting their costs onto programme spending, this assumes local staff would bring the same skill set to the table as DFID staff. Indeed experience tells us that local staff are often able to achieve things that expat DFID staff are not, but the point is that the skill sets are different and it remains unclear whether local staff are able to engage in the ways envisioned by Mitchell.

The larger challenge, however, is likely that of prevailing public sentiment (and therefore that of numerous policymakers). No matter how welcome a wider conceptualisation of international assistance may be for some practitioners or researchers (myself included), we must ask whether or not there is appetite among the British public for such a commitment to increasing investment in human resources in DFID at home and abroad? Perhaps not, as was the case with DFID’s foray into regional assistance programmes in Latin America. Or, if so, there are hurdles to be overcome. It is not clear how easily such an approach will harmonise with DFID’s explicit focus on ‘results’ given the challenge of demonstrating attribution in these types of engagement.
None of these challenges is insurmountable and many, including that of devising new ways of tracking results where the main intervention is knowledge could be seen as an opportunity, particularly within the research community.

On working with emerging powers to achieve development
Mitchell’s description of engagement with emerging powers contains no references to conventional aid effectiveness principles, such as the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) architecture or to the upcoming high level forum on aid effectiveness in Busan. It may be that the UK is right in being cautious and humble.

Emerging powers like Brazil intend to set their own course for development cooperation, without the assistance, or interference (depending on one’s perspective), of traditional donors – especially the Europeans (help from the US seems to be more acceptable, judging by the recent partnership with USAID to strengthen Brazil’s cooperation agency, ABC).

What DAC donors call ‘agreed-upon conventional’ aid effectiveness principles are often not  ‘agreed upon’ by some emerging powers, but rather seen as an expression of a vertical relationship between a hegemonic North and the South. As emerging powers develop as donors themselves, this consensus has become diluted and thus the argument for mutual respect and no blueprints is now being emphasised. Yet the question remains as to whether emerging powers are inclined to accept what the UK has put on the table in terms of partnerships (including a thinly-veiled reminder of UK clout through representation on governing bodies and executive boards).

On working with emerging powers to achieve global outcomes
A new approach is clearly needed to address the challenges of global public good provision and of global development more broadly. Indeed a bit of thinking has now gone into identifying new ways for the UK and other Western donors to approach and interact with the types of countries whose cooperation will be most crucial in attempts to improve global outcomes. The decision to continue DFID’s programme in India and some other emerging powers is encouraging in that DFID will be well placed to engage on development aspects of these issues.

However, here too there are questions. If there is a single country that is most relevant to addressing global development challenges it must be China, and that is precisely where DFID is shutting up shop next month. Presumably the plan is to engage on global issues such as climate change through other UK government departments. Yet, as the House of Commons International Development Select Committee has previously noted, while a range of government departments can engage in a coordinated way, a number of organisations including both within and external to the UK government argued DFID’s presence would be crucial.

Clearly there is a need, both in China and in contexts in which DFID will continue to work in the coming years, for the type of cross-Whitehall collaboration mentioned by the Minister. While the new MICs/G20 team within DFID seems like a good start at attempting to address this challenge, but as the lines between classical development priorities of poverty reduction and other international objectives continue to blur, DFID will need to manage the increasing potential for overlap and blurring with the role of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and other actors within Whitehall.

The new approach outlined by the Minister will require broad support from those within its sphere of impact, from the UK taxpayer and Whitehall to Delhi and beyond. Can we expect such a warm reception?