If I were British, I’d be proud of DFID

by Kate Orkin

Back home in South Africa, I’d probably score points for criticising donors as self-interested imperialists. My doctorate from the Department of International Development at Oxford has trained me to be highly critical of the aid sector. Nonetheless, I’d like to tell the anti-aid ranters in Monday’s Telegraph that if I were British, I would be proud as anything of DFID.

There are lots of arguments as to why aid should be delivered in the way DFID delivers it, and why Mr Pascoe is misinformed. Direct budget support is best practice because builds government capacity and ensures alignment with government priorities (and for an independent assessment of DBS, see here).  The worst disasters are poorly managed ones, and these are often rooted in poor governance or a lack of capacity, which won’t be fixed by more sacks of grain. Structures of patronage, illegitimate regimes, or a lack of government accountability are often propped up by repeated disaster relief, which Mr Pascoe advocates. And so on.

I’m not going to make those arguments here. I think the defenders of aid sometimes get so obsessed with showing results that they forget to talk about the human side of what they do.

So, firstly, I want to provide a counter to the ad hominem attacks directed at those in the aid sector, a “bunch of chancers and middle managers”. For the last four years I worked as a part-time research assistant for a research project which DFID co-funds and did a lot of fieldwork in Ethiopia. I don’t know the consultants subcontracted by DFID whom Mr Pascoe speaks about.[1] But I have watched DFID staff in action with critical eyes.

Whatever politically correct language they use, many donors are patronising of the African government staff they work with and see them as in need of “capacity building”. DFID staff members are often different. They build respectful, trusting relationships with government staff. In Ethiopia, they speak Amharic and learn the names of their counterparts’ children. Instead of summoning regional officials to the capital, they go on regular field visits. They speak about the country’s targets and priorities as their own. Donor representatives from other countries, whom I interviewed, speak with admiration about the ability of DFID staff to negotiate with government and their specialised expertise in the sector they work in, which is rare in donor advisors in “field” postings. The most talented Ethiopians in the NGO sector aspire to work at DFID, even though they would earn less than in other international organisations. That is a tremendous compliment.

Second, Mr Pascoe argues that British aid achieves objectives that “desirable but not necessary” and that beneficiary countries are doing fine without British help. India is the easiest example for him to choose, although inequality and poverty are often as bad in middle-income countries as poor ones, as argued here. The argument becomes less palatable when one examines countries like Ethiopia, the recipient of the second largest amount of British aid.

Allow me to tell you about the village where I did my PhD fieldwork in Ethiopia. Yes, the country’s human rights record is patchy. DFID withdrew its aid in 2005, and has reinstated it with conditions. But the government has been good at delivering social services with donor money and conditions for children are improving.

When I first visited in 2008, the school was woefully under-resourced: textbooks were shared between two or three children, teachers were often absent and the school only taught up to Grade 6. Partly in response to criticism that access to education had expanded without adequate attention being paid to quality, the government has embarked on an ambitious quality improvement programme, with DFID as the largest bilateral contributor. Country-wide, in 1991, roughly one in five children were in school. Today, that number is close to four in five.

In 2010, when I last visited, each child in the school had a textbook for each subject. The school had just received its school improvement grant directly from the district as part of the quality improvement programme and added it to parent contributions to build two new classrooms. The district allocated two teachers. Girls now complete primary school in the village. They are old enough that they can walk to the nearest town for secondary school without their parents worrying about their safety.

Ethiopian doctors earned dubious fame for their excellence in treating fistula, a debilitating injury in childbirth that is particularly common in very young or malnourished mothers. In 2010, 15-year-old girls in this village say that early marriage is illegal, want to delay marriage until they complete school, and plan to use contraception to space their children. Thanks to the mainstreaming of gender issues in the national education plan, the school runs tutorial classes for girls and assigns a teacher to monitor girls who drop out.

DFID’s whole contribution to Ethiopian education was £61 million in 2011-12. The opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics and Paralympics cost around £81 million. Indeed, the entire aid budget in 2011 (£8.6 billion) was significantly less than the government spent on hosting the Olympics (£9.3 billion).

Others have questioned Pascoe’s arguments about the irrelevance of soft power in general or the projection of British influence in particular. I’m not sure that’s the point. Textbook by textbook and classroom by classroom, UK aid marked “from the British people” is being delivered by representatives the British people can be proud of, and it is changing lives. I hope that knowledge guides Justine Greening’s line-by-line review.



[1] As a side note, one wonders if margins are high across the board, or only for organisations prepared to bid for work in Afganistan.

3 thoughts on “If I were British, I’d be proud of DFID

  1. Becky Carter

    September 21, 2012 at 10:12am

    Great article – thanks for this. Really appreciate having some on-the-ground facts being reported back as a welcome counter to the ubiquitous less-informed rants.

  2. MJ

    September 24, 2012 at 10:20am

    I agree that the sorts of cheap shots fired by the likes of Adrian Pascoe are spectacularly ill-informed. Also it’s fantastic to read about DFID’s great staff in Ethiopia, such people deserve but rarely receive much in the way of outside praise. But I have yet to meet a DFID staffer around where I work who can speak more than a few words of the local lingo. As a Brit I am proud DFID are one of the best bilateral aid agencies out there. As a bottom-up practitioner I still think a big chunk of *all* aid that gets delivered round here is spent misguidedly.

  3. Belay

    September 26, 2012 at 8:19am

    Thanks Kate – very true!

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