I listened to the speech with a mental checklist of what I wanted to hear:
First, a clear articulation of what better and more transformative UK aid looks like. Mitchell talked about innovative approaches from immunisation and GAVI, to cash-on-delivery and participatory budgeting putting more power and choice into the hands of local people and communities. He talked about working through the implications of the aid reviews and to the repositioning of CDC, the Government’s Development Finance Institution, to ‘deliver pioneering investment in the poorest places in the world’. All good stuff, not necessarily new, and still a bit light on the detail. How, for instance, does the Secretary of State compare the return to investment of a pound committed to GAVI and a pound committed to long-term investment in health sector reform in Uganda or the Democratic Republic of Congo? If getting more business DNA into development supports the drive for innovation, is the reverse also true? And what are the solutions of old that remain highly relevant as we restlessly seek out new and better ways of doing things?
Second, clear recognition that there is no single or simple recipe for delivering results and sustaining them is often the hardest part of all. On this, Mitchell was rightly unapologetic. ‘Don’t be misled into thinking our focus on results means we’ll avoid doing the harder things just because they’re difficult to measure. It doesn’t and we won’t.’ He was clear that DFID will continue to work in a way that tailors solutions to specific needs and contexts, in part through strengthened in-country teams. His speech made less of the challenges of sustaining change and the need to actively manage risks (not least because not all good things go together in development), but the point was well made nonetheless.
Third, a commitment to not only increase the supply of evaluation but to increase the role that evidence plays in guiding decision-making and action in development. Mitchell referred to the launch of ICAI and to evaluation becoming part of the core business of DFID. This we already know. But he also gave examples of how better evidence can inform catalytic change, sometimes well beyond the expectations of the evidence gatherers themselves. He referred less to the need to support the demand-side for evidence in developing countries, but his instinct is in the right place.
Finally, I wanted to hear a commitment to thinking and working ‘beyond aid’ and a clear sense of ambition for UK development policy in the world. Mitchell made statements of intent here, and some reference to cross-Whitehall working on the Strategic Defence and Security Review, the Trade White Paper and action on climate change, but the substance was undercooked and there is clearly much more to be done if the UK is really serious about putting in place a more policy-coherent development agenda. Mitchell has promised a speech later in the year on this. In my view he shouldn’t wait too long.
So, on my reckoning, there was a great deal in the speech to feel very positive about.
If I have one major quibble it is that the speech was too light – almost wilfully so – on the global context in which the Secretary of State is seeking his paradigm shift. There was no mention of galloping energy and food prices, political transitions (or not) in North Africa and the Middle East, of the increasing intensity of natural resource scarcities and intensifying disaster and humanitarian risk.
These trends may seem a world away from the practicalities of vaccinating children and nudging a delay in girls’ age at marriage, but they are not. They shape and define the risks and the prospects for change in a way that is not simply theoretical but often terrifyingly real. In fully supporting Mitchell’s call for a new robust narrative on results, we must engage with this bigger picture and ensure that we don’t end up with an armoury of magic bullets rather than a set of well thought through and long-term solutions to prosperity and security for all.