Thursday, 15 November 2012

A new approach to international development?


The appearance of key figures at select committees and All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) over the last two weeks has given us some clues on the direction the government will take on international development policy over the second half of this Parliament.

New International Development Secretary Justine Greening, her predecessor Andrew Mitchell, and Stephen O'Brien - the former Under-Secretary of State of the Department for International Development (DfID) - spoke about changes in budget support, the role of the private sector and a move towards technical assistance.

Budget support

Andrew Mitchell changed the rules on aid
On his first high-profile public appearance since resigning as chief whip, Mitchell was summoned in front of the International Development Committee to answer questions about the suspension and reinstatement of aid to Rwanda.

He said that the rules governing budget support - money that goes directly from the UK to the receiving country's government - needed to be strengthened.

"Budget support is the best way of doing development if you can trust the government with which you are working and if the government has the systems to ensure real accountability," he said.

"When the coalition government came into office, we decided that the rules for budget support were not sufficiently tough and the coalition government has toughened them up very significantly."

The more stringent approach, he said, meant aid is delivered quarterly or biannually - rather than yearly.

Private sector

Last week, O'Brien made a presentation at the APPG on street children where he emphasised the role of the private sector in helping to deliver services for the poorest.

O'Brien is keen on private sector support
He added: "What some charities have done well is focus not just on the human development aspect of their work but also on what, in the future, will be their economic underpinning."

His comments provoked some sneers in an audience made up of academics, charity workers and foreign government representatives.

The APPG's chair Baroness Miller, a Lib Dem peer, said to me afterwards that private involvement was acceptable - but only if companies had a clean record, in particular in relation to human rights.

By adding that everything had to be done to make sure the aid budget - which is set to rise to 0.7% of GNI by 2013 - is not reduced, she hinted that private sector involvement should not be a substitute for direct state aid.


Technical assistance

It was the turn of Greening to face the International Development Committee on Tuesday and she gave an insight into why the government had decided to stop direct financial support to India by 2015.

"We, alongside the Indian government, want to see a transition of our role onto one that's essentially based around technical skills, based around us helping the Indian government grow its economy so we can create more jobs in the private sector," she said.

Justine Greening made the case for 'technical assistance'
She was keen to point out that the help provided by the UK, £280 million per year, was a drop in the ocean compared to what the Indian government itself spends on health and education: £40 billion.

Greening is a convincing speaker but fell short when it came to explaining what 'technical assistance' actually meant.

She also swerved a crucial point by committee chair Malcolm Bruce who questioned whether state governments in the poorest states of India - where British aid had been targeted - risked feeling abandoned by a sudden end to assistance.

Greening was keen to move the debate instead to human rights and committed to having "more structured conversations" with human rights organisations than DfID had done in the past.

"It's my plan to have a more structured approach within DfID and work with the Foreign Office to assess human rights and, critically, to get the views of human rights organisations," she added. 

Her biggest challenge - as she has already found out over Rwanda - will be to decide whether to fund countries who have excellent records of using aid to reduce poverty but at the same time have a more checkered past when it comes to violence and other suspect practices.

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