What does the British Conservative Party think about development?

July 16, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

This week I attended the launch of ‘One World Conservatism’, a ‘Green Paper’ (i.e. discussion document) in which the Conservative Party (who if you believe the opinion polls, are highly likely to take over from Gordon Brown’s Labour at the next election, due before next June) set out its thinking on international development.

The Green Paper is the product of four years of internal thinking within the Party. One of the more interesting earlier (2007) outputs was ‘In It Together‘ the report of the Globalisation and Global Poverty Policy Review Group, chaired by Peter Lilley MP.

The Green Paper’s three sections cover aid, wealth creation and conflict, stabilisation and peacekeeping (this last section essentially channels Paul Collier’s thinking in Bottom Billion and War, Guns and Votes).

Perhaps most striking was the level of consensus on development within British politics. Despite any opposition party’s need to try and distinguish itself from the party in power, David Cameron, the party leader, pledged:
– to keep the Department for International Development (DFID) as a separate ministry with a seat in the cabinet
– to stick to the aid target of 0.7% of national income by 2013 and avoid any attempt to change its definition in order to massage the figures (see G8 post on Silvio Berlusconi’s proposed Whole of Country Approach). We asked David Cameron specifically on this and he answered: ‘this is a commitment of the government budget, defining aid in the same way as the current government’, which seems pretty categorical.
– to stick with DFID’s attempts to increase the stability of aid through three-year commitments and indicative ten-year projections

But the Tories (as the Conservative Party are popularly known – half the readers of this blog are from outside the UK) realize that raising aid when the government has to cut elsewhere is going to be a political hot potato, so a lot of the Green Paper is devoted to how to buttress public support through an independent aid watchdog, increased transparency (DFID publishing far more information online + ‘DFID funding can and should act as a battering ram for transparency across the world’) to counter what they call a ‘chronic lack of feedback and accountability’, and even a ‘MyAid’ competition in which the public vote to boost funds for their favourite aid project (limitless possibilities for gerrymandering there!).

The MyAid idea is part of a flirtation with what the paper calls ‘post-bureaucratic innovation’ – a brand of ‘wiki-aid’ that tries to circumvent bureaucracies through use of internet, mobiles etc. Hence big support for peer-to-peer lending like Kiva – the paper even floats the possibility of ‘providing matching funding for peer-to-peer loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries.’

They are also much impressed by the ‘cash on delivery’ proposal being developed by Owen Barder and Nancy Birdsall at the Washington-based Centre for Global Development. (For the latest CGD update on Cash on Delivery, see here and for CGD boss Nancy Birdsall’s comments on this post, see here). They explain it as ‘for example, £100 for every extra child who attends school, or for every extra mother who gives birth in a proper medical facility’. They hope this will help them shift what they see as Labour’s ‘endemic tendency to focus more on inputs than on outputs’. I’m going to have to read up on this, but at first sight it seems easier said than done and likely to be dogged by issues of attribution – if school attendance drops, how do you decide if it is because of government incompetence or because a recession is forcing parents to pull their kids out of school? And it is always politically difficult to cut aid when things are going badly.

One of the most controversial proposals – introducing aid vouchers that poor communities can redeem with a supplier of their choice for water, health clinics, schools etc – was downplayed in the document, as it’s already received a lot of criticism (see press story here). This is likely to be a flashpoint with NGOs and others who will probably fear a move to privatisation by stealth – the Paper argues that ‘we stand ready to work with public, not for profit and private sectors’ in providing health education, purely on the question ‘does it deliver for the poorest?’ But that begs a number of crucial questions, not least, timescale. A short term fix by privatising service provision may only be achieved at the expense of eroding the longer term effort to strengthen state systems that can deliver universal access to schools, hospitals etc.

Oh, and they love NGOs. Get ready for weird lobby meetings in which NGOs are arguing for channelling funding for essential services via the state, rather than via NGOs……

Click here for Oxfam’s official response to the paper.

July 16, 2009
Duncan Green