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Reviewing DFID's new single departmental plan

Written by David Watson, Rebecca Nadin, Iain Steel, Maximiliano Mendez-Parra, Elizabeth Stuart


On 23 May 2018 the Department for International Development (DFID) published its updated single departmental plan, which sets out DFID’s objectives and how it will achieve them. The overarching objectives are to:

  1. strengthen global peace, security and governance
  2. strengthen resilience and response to crisis
  3. promote global prosperity
  4. tackle extreme poverty and help the world’s most vulnerable
  5. deliver value for money and efficiency

These largely mirror objectives set out for the previous Parliament (2015–2017) – although value for money and efficiency has now been added as a fifth objective, as opposed to being presented as the context in which all DFID’s work will be delivered.

In this new plan, each objective has a lead Minister and official, as well as examples of how DFID has performed. The plan – which is part of a broader UK government update of departmental plans – also tells us that DFID has 3,309 members of staff, employed in the UK and locally in the countries where they operate.

Here ODI experts share their perspectives on the DFID plan.

Frequently asked questions

David Watson: the SDGs and equality

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) appear in the first sentence of the DFID plan, which details how each action DFID takes to achieve its objectives will contribute to achieving the SDGs. This is a marked and welcome contrast with the previous plan and the 2015 UK Aid Strategy, which made only brief references to the SDGs.

It is odd that it has taken so long for the SDGs to feature so prominently in DFID’s guiding document. The UK put a great deal of effort into the international negotiations on the 2030 Agenda – including the then UK Prime Minister David Cameron co-chairing a high high-level panel for the UN Secretary Secretary-General, and the British diplomatic machine being deployed in Brussels, New York and around the world to build support for the ‘leave no one behind’ principle and SDG 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions.

Another positive development is the link to Secretary of State Penny Mordaunt’s role as Minister for Women and Equalities. Mordaunt announced in her first speech that the UK will host a Global Disability Summit in July and DFID has long championed the need to prioritise girls and women. But seeing the words ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality’ at the beginning of a major donor’s to-do list is pretty rare, so this – along with the work DFID and the Foreign Office are doing behind the scenes to promote LGBT inclusion – is to be particularly applauded.

Hopefully a combination of Mordaunt’s dual role, the Prime Minister and Prince Harry’s interventions on LGBT rights and inclusion at the Commonwealth Summit, will help remove LGBT issues and development from the ‘too difficult’ box, and kick off a much needed dialogue on how to provide development support to the people who 72 governments actively want to leave behind.

Frequently asked questions

Rebecca Nadin: a risk-informed approach to development

Development pathways create many sources of risk, such as the pursuit of rapid economic growth without consideration of environmental or social consequences. Some complex, emerging threats are hybrids of natural and human processes. For example, human actions are driving the mass extinction of biodiversity and loss of ecosystems. These threats can present both opportunities and risks to multiple countries, depending on how they are managed, and DFID’s plan goes some way to outlining how they might be addressed.

But governments still fail to systematically understand and address the trade-offs and uncertainties in development that are leading to the creation of these complex threats in the first place – environmental degradation, resource scarcity and antibiotic resistance, to name just a few. The trade-offs that particular development choices create are frequently ignored until after a crisis or disaster.

The delivery of DFID’s plan could be better supported by taking a risk-informed development approach. This means explicitly acknowledging the complexity and interconnectedness of risk sources. Such an approach would build understanding of how resilient or at-risk development objectives are, and, simultaneously, how those objectives may lock-in risks.

It also requires DFID to understand that, when making development choices there are potential consequences and trade-offs, which create short-, medium- and long-term risks and opportunities. Being risk informed is a foundation to effective poverty reduction, environmental management and sustainable development.

Frequently asked questions

Iain Steel: tax and policy coherence

DFID’s commitment to double spending on improving tax systems by 2020 is welcome. The UK was one of the key countries behind the Addis Tax Initiative (ATI) and looks set to do its part to double technical cooperation.

The ATI countries also committed to ensure policy coherence for development. This will be key if efforts to improve tax systems are to pay off. In its efforts to promote economic development and prosperity in the developing world, DFID will need to ensure that those working to ‘create more and better jobs, increase trading opportunities, and make it easier to channel private sector investment to the world’s poorest countries’ act in ways that strengthen tax systems, not weaken them. This means, for example, steering countries away from excessive use of tax incentives to attract investment.

The evidence suggests tax incentives are often expensive and ineffective. They’re also not as important to investors as political and economic stability, infrastructure and human capital – some of the very things that require tax revenues to fund.

Frequently asked questions

Maximiliano Mendez-Parra: economic development and trade

The promotion of economic development is a key objective on its own, but it is also instrumental in the achievement of objectives such as eradicating extreme poverty and contributing to global peace and security.

The DFID plan aims to promote economic development and prosperity in the developing world, and contribute to the reduction of poverty while strengthening UK trade and investment opportunities. It aims to achieve these through a series of activities, which include assisting developing countries to create jobs, develop markets and channel private investment, and seizing the opportunities that technology presents to drive economic growth. The plan also outlines aims to use trade to reduce poverty and provide market access opportunities to Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and overseas territories.

What other actions could be taken? DFID must work with the Department for International Trade to expand market access to more developing countries. It must tailor and sequence aid, trade and investment to partners’ needs. For example, in addition to aid and market access to the UK, LDCs need private investments that contribute to the development of their private sector and increase their productive capacity. Investment opportunities in other developing countries may require aid too to unlock their full potential, or happen at all.

DFID can promote trade and investment by supporting developing countries to transform their institutions and regulations. But it should also work with other departments and the City of London, for example, to encourage British companies to invest in developing countries and build new markets. It can encourage investment and trade by helping host countries to transform their institutions and regulations.

The UK government and British firms can share their expertise in building modern services (such as finance, legal and engineering) with other UK firms not used to operating in developing countries, and developing country firms themselves to enhance their productivity. These activities should be a team effort across government, leveraging the comparative advantages of each department, to maximise the potential for aid for trade and investment to deliver benefits for partners and the UK.

Frequently asked questions

Elizabeth Stuart: going further on leaving no one behind

It is good to see DFID (finally) putting the SDGs front and centre of its work, and to see ‘leave no one behind’ feature so prominently. Leave no one behind is the lightning rod for the SDGs, and governments need to act fast and intentionally to stand any chance of achieving their 2030 commitments. DFID is first-in-class in leave no one behind implementation and should be shouting about it.

But it also needs to frame its work here beyond the laudable focus on women and girls, and people living with disability. Leave no one behind applies equally to its other commitments – such as that of job creation for the poorest areas, or its climate change work, or indeed its work to end extreme poverty more generally.

The real power of the leave no one behind approach comes when commitments are made to front-load outcomes for the worst-off in all aspects of development. Our research in Ghana explored some of the data, policy and financing actions that can help reach the furthest behind first. And if DFID is really committed equality – as a full reading of leave no one behind would imply  – it must include it on an equal footing with efficiency and effectiveness in its value-for-money assessments (Objective 5). Otherwise the impression is that, in reality, the latter two are more important.

Prioritising the poorest and most vulnerable may be more expensive and yield slower results but governments cannot afford to leave people suffering in extreme poverty if they are serious about tackling inequality and delivering the SDGs.