DFID is 20 years old: has its results agenda gone too far?

September 12, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

DFID just turned 20 and Craig Valters and Brendan Whitty have a new paper charting its changing relationship to results 

Focusing on results in international development is crucial. At this level of abstraction, how could one argue otherwise? Yet it matters how development agencies are managed for these results. We know that with proper management systems, aid interventions can be very effective; but if poorly managed, they can be harmful.

Yesterday, we published a paper which analysed how and why the results agenda emerged in the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). Our primary focus was on the politics of this story, how it intersected with DFID’s management, and the responses to results changes. We asked whether DFID’s results management is fit for purpose; that is, does it reflect the UK’s development ambitions?

We think this story is important and timely. There is growing pressure—from politicians, the public and the media—for aid spending to prove its worth. It is time for a serious conversation about what results DFID and the UK government can achieve and how they should manage their interventions.

The story of DFID: 1997-2017

In 1997, the New Labour government created DFID as an independent department. The Secretary of State, Clare Short, forged an anti-poverty agenda based on principles of global partnership. Instead of being accountable for directly delivered results, DFID was judged on its contribution to a series of international targets. Under Hilary Benn’s leadership, this was maintained. The UK committed to spending 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on aid, hosted the G8 summit where leaders committed to Make Poverty History, and helped shape the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness.

Changes during 20 years of DFID

2007 onwards shows an erosion of Clare Short’s internationalist agenda in order to justify the 0.7% commitment. The political climate became more troubled: the UK economy began to suffer, and public support for aid declined, yet DFID’s budget grew. Together, the new Secretary of State, Douglas Alexander, and DFID’s leadership started to develop results-based management reforms focused on their own deliverables.

Andrew Mitchell accelerated the agenda. In 2010, the ‘results agenda’ became synonymous with the reforms he made – the new Business Case, Bilateral Aid Review and changes to Results Frameworks. For some these reforms were evolutionary, for others they provoked major concerns. In 2015, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) – formed under Andrew Mitchell – critiqued the results agenda for encouraging a focus on short-term economy and efficiency, over long-term, sustainable impact.

Ongoing internal reforms in DFID appear to be highlighting possible routes towards more flexible and adaptive programming. Yet there are numerous contradictory pressures within the department, and staff remain constrained by the political environment and the results agenda.

What does this story tell us?

Firstly, crucial elements of development management systems are driven primarily by party political pressures, rather than by the complex realities of aid implementation. As a consequence, DFID has adopted some ambitious, untested or unfit for purpose reforms.

Secondly, DFID staff members have interpreted these reforms differently based on their professional interests and policy beliefs. The results agenda empowered some (such as statisticians and economists) and marginalised others (such as those working on governance).

Thirdly, DFID has been pulled steadily back to central government accountability standards, reinforcing centralised control and fixed target-setting. This has sat uneasily with the realities of development assistance, which often require local ownership and flexibility.

Finally, the 0.7% commitment at a time of austerity has both protected and exposed DFID; requiring it to deliver quality aid, while under pressure to spend, working in fragile states, with relatively fewer staff and fixed results commitments.

So what’s next?

The results agenda has focused DFID on what it can achieve. In some form, this needs to remain. Yet it has shifted this focus to the short-term, prioritised upwards rather than downwards accountability, and unhelpfully promoted blueprint planning. A different approach is required.

Create a results agenda fit for purpose

Change the assumption that we can predict, with certainty, what our interventions will achieve. Rejecting this world-view means taking results and accountability more seriously, not less. Interventions need to be based on the best available information, with regular testing to see if they are on the right track, rather than being overly focused on pre-planned numbers.

Be more honest with the British public about aid

Political leadership is crucial. According to Andrew Mitchell, ‘there’s absolutely no reason why this should be complex for the public. It’s the job of politicians to explain complex things to the public in a way that they understand.’ Fair enough. But let’s not patronise them either. A more honest conversation about aid and development is required – how, where and why it works, why results aren’t always tangible, and why it sometimes fails.

Support reform in how DFID is managed

Reformers within DFID are seeking positive change through ensuring flexibility, encouraging greater learning, and focusing on the causes of poverty and conflict. These reformers require support. Beyond that, the full implications of 0.7% should be rethought. The government must adequately staff in-country expertise, commit to longer-term programmes, and reconsider where money can be spent effectively – which won’t always be in fragile states.

Do we need a reality check?

Reformers inside and outside of DFID have to tread a careful path – keeping radical alternatives alive while tinkering around the margins. The negative elements of the results agenda cannot easily be overturned. It is tied to wider political decisions that have shifted DFID’s culture: a (re)centralisation of power to the centre over country offices, increased privatisation and a gradual move towards aid in the ‘national interest’.

This story brings the UK’s international ambitions into the light. Part of the political question is: are we looking to buy results, or support longer term deep-rooted changes? We presume that politicians across the ideological spectrum have an interest in the latter too. We need to move beyond a results agenda which narrows the gaze of the development industry, to an approach which takes tackling the causes of poverty and conflict seriously.

Update: here’s the video of the launch event, with the authors up against several former DFID ministers

September 12, 2017
Duncan Green