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Walking the line between morality and pragmatism


The UK Government today launched its latest White Paper on International Development. Set against a crowded domestic and international policy agenda, and released just before the Parliamentary recess, some might say there couldn’t be a worse time for a White Paper on development to make its mark. The other view is that the moment is critical; that with the effects of the financial crisis and recession taking hold, and a public sense that the UK has troubles enough without focusing its attention abroad, this is a time to re-commit boldly to global poverty eradication. The acid test for this White Paper is how well it walks the line between promoting international development because it is the right thing to do, and supporting it because it is in the national self-interest. 

The White Paper was only released a few hours ago, but three critical themes jump out. 

The first is interdependence; the acknowledgement that the success and security of those in developing countries has a profound effect on success and security elsewhere. The global financial crisis has proved this interdependence, with financial turmoil in one part of the world proving a strong catalyst for economic turmoil almost everywhere else. The question for the UK is: what does knowing more about our interdependence mean for the way we work as a development and humanitarian community?  The White Paper points to the need for a new approach that puts more emphasis on tackling development in the difficult places, such as conflict affected and fragile states; on better international working, including with the emerging powers; on broader and deeper partnerships with civil society and the private sector; and on more joined up working across the UK government.  For those who are focused on ‘what’s in it for us’, there may be disappointment.  But the call for a new approach chimes with what we now know about the changing context for development and where change is needed, in particular:  less working in silos; giving more emphasis to the political economy of development problems; and building stronger accountabilities for the way aid is delivered, whether bilateral or multilateral. It is also a recognition that there is no monopoly on good ideas – that innovation is, increasingly, generated by communities and civil society.

A second key theme relates to working in fragile states. This is the first White Paper since 1997 to prioritise the challenge of development in conflict-affected and fragile contexts, and that is most welcome. Fragility is no respecter of borders – the results can be seen in the world’s refugee camps and in the ‘export’ of criminality and lawlessness.  Some of the very poorest people on the planet live in fragile states, subjected to daily and relentless insecurity and one crisis after another. We know that it is impossible to separate successful state-building from successful peace-building and that security, justice and prosperity are interwoven. The White Paper is clear that doing development as ‘business as usual’ in these contexts is an exercise in futility. Particularly welcome is its emphasis on putting security and justice at the centre of state-building and on ensuring that economic development – jobs and other ways to earn an income – are in the mix from the outset.  

The third critical theme is climate change. The long march of climate change will be a game changer for development everywhere, and the White Paper points clearly to the importance of leadership from rich countries to stop this becoming a development disaster for poor countries. The challenge here is to ensure that climate commitments made at the UN climate change meeting in Copenhagen in December will be far reaching and binding enough, and that the dozens of new funding streams to support mitigation strategies to stem climate change,  and adaptation strategies to help the poorest cope with its impact, have the necessary clout, particularly for poor communities who already face the challenges caused by  climate change on a daily basis.  Copenhagen could be the most critical climate change moment in a generation – it is vital that donors get it right.
These are three positive themes in the White Paper. But I also have concerns. 

While the White Paper presents a fairly robust vision of UK involvement in development, it gives a more limited sense of what DFID and the UK will be doing less of in future years.  It seems to cover all bases. Whether it is working multilaterally, with new partners or the very poorest in conflict-affected countries, there is little sense of strategic selectivity behind DFID’s agenda. DFID has a much deserved reputation for being both an effective global actor and a valued bilateral partner, but as the agenda becomes more demanding, it is vital that DFID keeps a firm eye on its contribution to development effectiveness.  And that may mean not only doing things differently but also letting others do more. There are also questions on how a White Paper commitment to ensuring that the UN, the EU and others deliver can translate into reality. This would have to be part of an agenda that goes beyond DFID. 

There is relatively little on how aid will be delivered differently or the difficult choices that DFID needs to make to deliver the transparency, scrutiny and accountability promised in the White Paper. Budget support is mentioned infrequently. Does this mark the beginning of the end for DFID’s enthusiasm for such support?  

There is reference to a leaner, stronger and more efficient DFID – no controversy on that one – but at the same time the White Paper talks of more engagement in fragile states that demand much greater staff time and resources than elsewhere, often without a neat balance sheet at the end. How is DFID going to balance its need for ‘savings’ with the demands of working in more complex environments?

In general, the White Paper confirms that the UK Government does indeed see international development as the right thing to do. My hope is that it also charts a course for the delivery of aid in the right way. It pinpoints the crucial link between international development and national self-interest, particularly with its new and welcome emphasis on fragile states. In short, it is a valiant attempt to walk that difficult – and often blurred – line between morality and pragmatism.    

The G-8 meeting in Italy this week will show whether or not donor countries are solid in their commitments to the developing world. The White Paper is timely in setting out the UK Government’s stall.  As we said in our Development Charter for the G-20 earlier this year, leaders of rich nations cannot deliver development, but they can create the climate that makes lasting development possible. The White Paper shows that the UK grasps both the moral and pragmatic arguments for international development and takes these responsibilities seriously; can it convince others at the G-8 of theirs?