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Important messages from the UK Government on international development. Are we listening?

Written by Simon Maxwell


There have been some important messages on international development from the UK Government since the change of administration in June – and they signal changes of emphasis to which we might want to react.

A first set of changes was to do with structure, especially the appointment of Mark Malloch Brown to the post of Minister for Africa, Asia and the UN in the FCO, and the appointment of Gareth Thomas as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State jointly in DFID and the new Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, with special responsibility for trade policy.  Both these signal a commitment to joined-up thinking across Government.

A second set of changes was to do with policy.  Growth has moved sharply up the agenda, and so has a commitment to reform the multilateral system.

In chronological order, the relevant milestones have included

  1. Douglas Alexander’s speech at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington on 12 July;
  2. Gordon Brown’s speech at UN Headquarters on 31 July;
  3. The announcement of the comprehensive spending review, covering the period 2008/9 – 2010/11, on 9 October;
  4. The publication of a set of Public Service Agreements to accompany the CSR, also on 9 October;
  5. Douglas Alexander’s speech to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Overseas Development, on 11 October; and
  6. A speech on growth by Baroness Shriti Vadera, one of DFID’s Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State, at  the launch of Doing Business 2008, on 12 October.

I am leaving out here, but may come back to, speeches by other ministers, including by the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and other Foreign Office Ministers (see the speech archive on the FCO website); and also other initiatives, like the launch of the International Health Partnership, on which I have written a separate blog.

Douglas Alexander’s speech on 12 July was entitled ‘The Role of International Development in a Changing World: The Perspective from Britain’.  In the speech, he set out to answer four questions.  Firstly, what does the world look like at the beginning of the 21st century?  Secondly, how do we achieve change in this world?  Thirdly, and more specifically, what must be the role of international development in that process of change?  And, finally, how do we work together to secure that change?  He talked about lack of progress against the MDGs, but also about security, terrorism, migration and climate change.  He called for an ‘alliance of opportunity’ and said that

‘We need to demonstrate by our word and our actions that we are: internationalist not isolationist; multilateralist not unilateralist; active not passive; and driven by core values consistently applied, not special interests.’

This led into a discussion of four ‘immediate challenges’: (a) growth; (b) climate change; (c) conflict; and (d) creating an effective international system.

Gordon Brown spoke at the UN on 31 July.  His speech focused mainly on the MDGs and declared a ‘development emergency’.  The response should be ‘a compact - the rich accepting their responsibilities to invest, to support, to end protectionism and to deliver our promises; the developing countries accepting their responsibilities to reform, to open up to trade, and to be transparent and free of corruption.’  His call for action included a proposal for an emergency international meeting in 2008.  It was supported in separate declarations by 14 world leaders and 21 top international business leaders.  The speech went on to discuss three topics in more detail, viz (a) trade and economic development, (b) climate change, and (c) health.

The comprehensive spending review was announced on 9 October.  The press release announcing the DFID settlement says that the DFID budget will rise by an average of 11% a year in real terms, to reach £7.9 billion by 2010/11.  ODA (which includes debt relief and CDC commitments) is expected to be £9.1m by 2010/11, which will be equivalent to 0.56% of GNI, in line with European commitments and also with the commitment to reach 0.7% of GNI by 2013.  It is perhaps worth saying that the budget increase is quite heavily back-loaded in the last year of the settlement, though this does not seem to be true of the ODA estimate.  It is also worth noting that £400m of the extra money is earmarked for the new Environmental Transformation Fund, announced at the end of June and jointly owned by DEFRA and BERR (formerly DTI).  There’s more work to do on analysing these figures.

The Public Service Agreements were published to accompany the CSR.  This time round, they are whole of government commitments rather than Ministry or Department specific.  There are four PSAs which relate to international development, viz (a) climate change, (b) environment, (c) MDGs and (d) conflict.  On a quick reading, they are much improved on the previous round (and indeed on early drafts for this round).  For example, last time round, the DFID PSA made the Department accountable for high level outcomes like poverty reduction, even in countries where DFID aid was a very small fraction of 1% of GDP: I had some fun with that in an earlier blog on PSAs.  This time, the MDG PSA has the MDGs at the level of vision, and concentrates on practical things the Government can do in terms of using the bilateral and multilateral programmes and trying to influence the multilateral system.

I hope people will read the PSAs and help identify policy shifts.  I was struck in the conflict PSA, for example, that the Global and Africa conflict pools have been merged, and that the Post Conflict Reconstruction Unit has been renamed the Stabilisation Unit and will have access to a new Stabilisation Aid Fund: this is important for those working on fragile states.

In his speech to APGOOD last week, Douglas Alexander picked up some of the themes of his Washington speech.  His speech was entitled ‘Meeting the Development Challenge’.  This time, he took the opportunity to reemphasise DFID’s core commitment to good governance and to improving public services.  However, he then went on to focus on the key challenges which face the world at the beginning of the 21st century.  There were 4 of these: (a) reforming international institutions; (b) increasing growth; (c) dealing with climate change; and (d) tackling conflict.  This was an important speech which brought the Washington vision back home.

Finally, Shriti Vadera gave an important speech on growth at the launch in London on 12 October of the Doing Business Report 2008.  She argued strongly that growth was essential for poverty reduction and the achievement of the MDGs.  She said

‘sometimes we lose sight of the simple fact that, without growth, sustainable human development is a largely theoretical proposition.  We also sometimes lose sight of the fact that the purpose of aid is to no longer require it.  Unchanging long term aid dependency should be a measure of our failure.’

This led into a discussion of how growth happens and how growth can be made more inclusive.  She then discussed the various ways DFID would help promote inclusive growth, and the role of the private sector.  On the private sector, she said

‘I still hanker after a role for northern companies that moves beyond minimum standards, beyond philanthropy, beyond corporate social responsibility into making them long term partners in development.  By increasing the level of value and wealth that is created in the country of investment, by increasing the level of revenue that is captured in country, through investment in domestic supply chains and developing local business partnerships, through skills and technology transfer and by bringing the unique approach to solving problems that the private sector has.’

The growth theme, by the way, is strongly consistent with work in ODI’s investment and growth programme; and the private sector points with the work of the programme on business and development performance.

There’s obviously a lot more to say about these shifts of emphasis, but also other aspects of Government policy, for example via the FCO.  Our leaders are communicating with us.  We owe them engagement and a response.