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More questions than answers: reflections on the Conservative Green Paper

David Cameron and Andrew Mitchell launched the Conservative Party’s Green Paper on International Development on 13 July with the message ‘every pound of aid will get a hundred pennies of value’.  The emphasis on value for money for the UK taxpayer takes poll position in the Paper, clearly setting out the Conservatives’ stall on aid in the run up to the next general election.  

The Green Paper opens strongly with a statement of commitment to achieving, by 2013, the UN target of spending 0.7% of national income on aid. This is hugely important and points to a clear political consensus on the moral case for international development. The first 20 pages of the Green Paper then focus on how this aid money will be delivered and accounted for under any future Conservative government.  At its simplest, the message is that there needs to be greater independent scrutiny and transparency of aid spending – the proposal for an independent aid watchdog reappears – more performance-based aid delivery, from aid vouchers to cash-on-delivery; and more direct engagement by the British taxpayer in how aid money is spent. This includes the creation of a MyAid Fund to let British taxpayers vote on projects they think should receive further support.  There are repeated references to subjecting aid spending to more scrutiny; to following the aid pound and ensuring accountability to the UK taxpayer.

The Green Paper states a commitment to the current international consensus on aid effectiveness, enshrined in the Paris Declaration and taken further in the Accra Agenda for Action but doesn’t  make it clear how it will balance the call for more or rather different accountabilities at home with the mutual accountability principles that are enshrined in the Paris–Accra framework. 

As expected with a Green Paper, the devil lies in the detail and there is much in the chapter on value for money, and indeed in the whole report, that raises further questions. On how aid is spent, for example, it is not clear what the criteria will be for allocating aid by country if, as the Green Paper states, the 108 countries in which DFID works at present  is too many (even though 90% of current spending is concentrated in 23 countries). 

What share of DFID funds would be spent in better performing countries versus those that are not performing as well, under a Conservative Government? What share of aid would go to conflict-affected and fragile states? The Green Paper states that there would be no more funding for China. Would the same apply for India?  These are not theoretical questions. They have a major bearing on how the Conservatives plan to contribute to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and how they balance their sense of moral purpose with the practical action proposed in the Green Paper.  Cash-on-delivery schemes, for example, are unlikely to be viable in conflict-affected states where there is next to no capacity to mobilise or deliver services in advance of international support.  Delivering budget support only when the conditions are right would have ruled out the very successful experiments with budget support in both Rwanda and Sierra Leone; two cases that the Green paper applauds, and rightly. Private sector experiments in service delivery may work where market and regulatory conditions are right but it is precisely because of huge market failures in the poorest of countries that market solutions have not already been found.  The concept of market failure does not appear at any point in the Green Paper.
How this brave new world of ‘pay as you go’ aid would fit with the hard won principles of supporting country-led strategies, strengthening country systems and addressing fundamental market failures, whether in infrastructure or regulation, is not at all clear.

On broader themes the Green Paper has some bold statements on growth and on working with conflict affected and fragile states, but there are also some gaps.  Despite being a game changer for development, climate change receives one and a half pages in the 64-page paper, plus some scattered references throughout the text. There is very little on social protection, despite a growing body of work, including work by ODI, showing that social protection is an absolutely critical investment in managing shocks and securing future human capital. The shifting geopolitics of development get fairly short shrift; as does the rise of the BRICs and of China, in particular, as a donor nation. A return to a focus on the  Commonwealth is interesting but may not be seen as completely in line with this changing world.  Beyond aid issues, such as migration, security and technology are there but only barely; not much on the role of development finance institutions and mega-foundations in the future financing of development.

The Green Paper offers food for thought, and the solid pledge to reach the aid target of 0.7% of GNI is reassuring. But there are as many questions here as answers.