UK Aid, accountability and optimal logo placement

DFID has just produced a new version of its UK Aid logo. While there is general grumbling about the jingoistic addition of the Union Jack and its similarity to the USAID logo – the current iteration is not vastly different than the original – introduced three years ago (one of the first things I blogged about) by the previous government.

These sort of emblems have always made me uneasy. When I worked as a civil servant in Malawi, my printer was branded with a “from the American people” sticker (as was my USB stick). The presence of the sticker made me feel like I should be worshipping some unseen god who delivered me office supplies which only ran on 120 volts.

Douglas Alexander, DFID’s last minister under the Labour government, once said that he wished every DFID-funded classroom would have some notice telling children and their parents that the UK was responsible, and that this would help accountability. The rest of us ridiculed that idea, dismissing it as a Trojan horse for self-promotion.

However, perhaps Mr. Alexander was correct in his assumption that emblazoning everything with “UK Aid” could – in theory – increase accountability. If DFID funded something which utterly failed, then it would be incredibly obvious to everyone around. Just one photo of a derelict Union Jack-stamped school would make for pretty poor press. This might create incentives to make aid more effective.

Yet, if the folks at DFID realize this and are rational – instead of trying to be more effective, it’s much easier just to be more careful with sticker placement. Put stickers on high-profile, “successful” ventures (think bags of food rather than say, good governance) and avoid putting stickers on anything that looks like it might fail. So DFID won’t need to be more effective, just more discerning with their stickers.

DFID calls Malawi’s bluff

They blew it up!

I wrote before about how both Malawi and DFID were in a bizarre bluffing game over the recent expulsion of the British High Commissioner following the leak of a memo criticizing Bingu wa Mutharika’s government. It seems that we’ve reached the end of the game, with the British Government moving first:

Malawi will no longer receive general budget support from the UK Government, Andrew Mitchell announced today.

General budget support is used to allow governments to deliver their own national strategies for poverty reduction against an agreed set of targets. This has now been suspended indefinitely.

The Development Secretary took the decision after the Government of Malawi repeatedly failed to address UK concerns over economic management and governance.

This is, of course, a load of toff. DFID has put up with Mutharika’s authoritarian streak for several years now. Maybe this is the underlying reason behind Mitchell’s decision, but this would not have happened nearly as soon without the diplomatic crisis several weeks ago.

Still, this is a pretty amazing reversal of what looked to be an incredibly robust relationship during Mutharika’s first term. This all changed when the election cemented his position. Ironically, the British have (in part) to blame for this by helping fund the fertilizer subsidy which made him so popular.

As I explained before, the more successful the aid is rerouted, the less successful this action will be at actually incentivising change. Life will be less painful in the short run, but what about the long run?

Of course, DFID takes a moment to take as much credit for past progress as possible:

The UK has helped improve food security in Malawi for over seven million people a year by providing them with high yielding maize and legume seeds via the Farm Input Subsidy Programme.

UK support to strengthen the health service has helped save the lives of 3,200 pregnant women and 40,000 children since 2004. UK funding has built over 3,200 primary school classrooms and 4,800 toilets since 2001, helping keep more girls in school.

Hat tip to Kim Yi Dionne for the link.

Is aid really a moral duty?

Through Roving Bandit, I spotted this coverage of Andrew Mitchell’s defense of aid as a moral duty:

In a direct riposte to those in the media and on the Tory right who have attacked the government’s decision to spare the aid budget from George Osborne’s austerity programme, Mitchell said: “It is a stain on all our consciences that a girl born in South Sudan today is more likely to die having a baby than to complete primary school.

“When we know what life – and death – is like for over a billion people living on less than 80p a day, and we have the wherewithal to do something about it, then, yes, I do believe we have a moral imperative to do so.”

I agree with Peter Singer’s basic argument: that we do have a moral imperative to help the poor out of poverty. Many, including Singer himself, have used this to argue that overseas aid is a moral duty.

Yet this argument is conditional on aid being the most effective means of reducing poverty, or at least the most effective way you can reduce poverty. It’s not clear, when stacked up against trade, immigration, investment, etc, that aid really is a moral duty. It’s a bit like arguing that baking cakes is a moral duty, but choosing to focus just on the icing.

Readers would be reasonable to point out that the average person can’t do much about these other paths out of poverty, at least not in expectation. This is also Singer’s argument – aid is the easiest way for people to ease suffering in the short term. Still, this isn’t true for Andrew Mitchell – he’s in the cabinet of a major government. If he’s going to argue that we have a moral imperative to give aid, he should also spend more time arguing for other policies that might have equal or even greater success in reducing poverty.

Can Malawi deal with a British aid freeze?

In the wake of the diplomatic row between Malawi and the UK over a leaked memo criticising Bingu Mutharika, the UK has suspended all aid to Malawi. Jimmy Kainja, over at the Guardian blog, notes that Mutharika suddenly looks a little more willing to compromise:

However, Mutharika announced on Monday that “genuine dialogue and consultations have been initiated” between the two countries. He was confident that “new modus operandi will be agreed to the mutual regard” of Britain and Malawi’s “shared common vision and interests”.

“With regard to Malawi’s bilateral relations with the United Kingdom, I wish to assure this august house that both Malawi and Britain are committed to strengthen such relations in all aspects … we expect our development partners to continue to support us,” Mutharika said during the Malawian parliament’s budget session.

This seems to suggest that Mutharika was never entirely serious, or perhaps misunderstood the full ramifications of expelling the British high commissioner. DFID has historically been a major contributor to Malawi’s fertiliser subsidy program, so this aid crunch has the potential to do a lot of political damage to the current government.

Many consider the aid freeze to be too harsh. This is one of those big, unanswered questions – how should we weigh the “aid shouldn’t incentivize bad governments” against the “cutting aid will hurt the poor argument”? This might be strongly determined by how much you discount future suffering versus suffering today.

Kainja argues that we can have it both ways, if DFID would only re-route its aid through NGOs and civil society organisations. This is problematic for two reasons: Firstly, a large hunk of DFID’s aid is a combination of general budget support and sectoral budget support. They give money to the Malawian government to do things, like run hospitals and buy fertilizer. It would be extremely difficult for DFID to fund similar operations in the NGO sector, especially in the short term.

Finally, rerouting the aid, if successful, doesn’t really do much to `punish’ the Malawian government. This row isn’t over corruption or theft of aid, it’s over creeping authoritarianism. If the average Malawian sees no change in access to aid-funded resources, it will be unclear exactly what a rerouting would accomplish.



What has two thumbs and doesn't give a crap?

Browsing the web today, I’ve come across two things that Friday-me is pretty unimpressed with, but lacks the time and patience to attack fully.

The first is Larry Elliot in the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog, talking about the expectation that developing countries will grow much faster than developed countries in the foreseeable future:

…there are also colossal longer-term risks. Growth rates of the sort envisaged for developing countries by the World Bank and PwC will put massive pressures on commodity prices and the environment. After two centuries of economic and political hegemony, rich countries may not take kindly to being challenged by China and India. And if, as looks highly probable, clashes over resources and currencies are a proxy for a deeper political struggle between the emerging east and the declining west, the world will need a robust and effective system of global governance to manage the tensions. And, as the failures to conclude a trade deal or make progress on a climate change accord have shown quite clearly, there isn’t one.

This is all probably more or less accurate. Commodity prices and the environment are going to be under severe pressure in the foreseeable future, but the biggest culprits are still the developed countries which are consuming more and more from a much higher starting point. A little more growth won’t affect this significantly. His point about increasing conflict between East and West might also be true, but the dominant narrative of international tension right now remains national security. Economic tensions are there but all the players see that there are as many opportunities as there are threats in the rise of the two most populous countries in the world.

New growth estimates do not make either of these issues more pressing than they already are. Linking them to growth is counter-productive because as soon as you tell a country or a people, especially a poor one, that it needs to grow less, you lose your audience.

The second thing I’m dubious about is DfID’s proposal to allow the public to essentially vote on what it spends its money on, through a matching scheme. I’ve blogged numerous times in the past about why certain kinds of spending are popular with the public. This kind of approach will just increase the skew of development financing away from the economy and towards social development, and reduce the use of General Budget Support, the option that most respects the idea of country ownership of the development process. Still, it’s a consultation, so whether you agree with me or not, let them know.

Quant wars

Every submission to the secretary of state has to be accompanied with a value-for-money calculation. This is taken to absurd lengths; nonplussed civil servants had to find a measure of value for Mitchell’s recent visit to the UN summit on the millennium development goals, so they resorted to adding up column inches of media coverage and calculating what that would have cost as advertising. Many crucial issues in government can’t easily be measured in monetary terms.

That’s Madeleine Bunting on the general silliness of DFID’s value-for-money requirements. Hat tip to Duncan Greene.

In which Andrew Mwenda might be getting what he wants… sort of

Much like Ray Stantz, Andrew Mwenda should be careful of what he wishes for

Be careful of what you wish for. You might just get it.

Recently, Andrew Mwenda and five other prominent African intellectuals wrote to the Telegraph suggesting that Africa does not in fact need British development aid. Rather, they would be much happier if Britain contributed to the scrapping of the Common Agricultural Policy as a way of helping Africa.

Unfortunately, it seems like the Conservative-Liberal coalition Government might be giving them half of what they want – and not the good part. Yet another DfID-related leak has revealed that the British aid budget will from now on be allocated with a much stronger emphasis on UK security; in effect, moving aid away from being a stand-alone policy area and into a branch of a foreign policy drive aimed at ensuring the safety of the British public. Cynics will say this is nothing new, but it is surely more explicit and more closely felt than at any time since DfID’s formation.

Just to be clear: the leaked document does not suggest that Britain stop funding schools, or healthcare or even economic growth per se. DfID could continue to be a paragon of virtue in international development circles. What it does mean is that whenever DfID want to spend on these things, it will need to justify them on UK national security grounds. Since UK national security is best served by stable, prosperous, well-educated countries existing around the world this isn’t necessarily a recipe for disaster.

However, it’s another indication that the new Government want to make DfID, hitherto one of the best aid agencies to work with from a developing country point of view, more of a tool for an overall UK Government strategy founded in ideology and realpolitik. This is a real worry. Like the news from a few weeks back that DfID was dropping a number of commitments previously agreed, allegedly including the Paris Declaration, it is an indication that the Government wants to free up DfID to respond to its own priorities first and foremost.

Up til now, one of the reasons why DfID has developed such a good reputation was because it had a fairly high degree of operational independence from the rest of Government. This gave it the flexibility to pursue better aid allocations in the context of wider donor and Government spending, sometimes by taking on risk through budget support and other times by improving resource allocation procedures (budgeting, Parliamentary oversight and the like).

Giving DfID a requirement to justify what they do based on UK national security introduces an important restraint to them: it means that they cannot simply respond to country needs given the allocation of other resources, but needs to ensure it’s own resources pass a fitness test at home. What’s more, this all but rules out general budget support (from the recipient point of view, the best way of getting aid, if you care about building the ability of Government to allocate and account for funds), since there can be no guarantee on where this money will be spent.

All in all, this is a worrying sign though not a guarantee of catastrophe.

We’ll always have Paris…

Of all the Declarations, in all the world...

News from this weekend suggests that DfID will be reversing its hitherto strong backing to the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. My initial reactions were of shock and disappointment. Shock because DfID has been an ardent supporter of the Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda for Action. Disappointment because it was so unexpected: it has a strong, highly competent aid effectiveness department and has also used the Declaration to push Government reform.

I’ve noted after viewing the original leaked memo that the original advice was in favour of maintaining the Paris Declaration as a commitment by DfID. Most of the other commitments dropped simply serve to cut the amount of ringfencing of DfID’s budget and therefore increase its flexibility to meet the needs of different developing countries.

The decision to rescind their commitment to the PD is a much more problematic one, however. The issues essentially break down as follows:

What has DfID Reversed?

The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (PD) is an agreement signed by donor agencies and Governments and aid-recipient Governments in 2005. The Declaration establishes a number of best practices in aid management that all parties promise to adhere to, and twelve targets which all parties are to be assessed on. These targets and commitments were strengthened by the Accra Agenda for Action (AAA) in 2008.

The idea behind the PD and AAA is to make it easier for Governments to manage, use and report on aid by simplifying the way aid is contracted, disbursed and evaluated. It also seeks to maximise the benefit to the developing country by untying aid and ensuring that aid be channelled through the working local process of the aid-recipient Government. Thus aid is promised to be channelled through the local budget process, use the local accounting and audit procedures and be evaluated according to local processes. It further stressed the need to make aid as flexible as possible by using fungible General and Sector Budget Support.

Recipient Governments also made pledges to improve their own systems: of audit, budgeting and so on, and to be assessed independently on them.

The Paris Declaration has two very big positive points. The first is that it seeks to increase the ability of local actors to respond to their own problems flexibly and not be dictated to by a multitude of individual donors. It thus helps reduce the coordination problem of aid and encourages local solutions and visions of development.

The second major benefit, related to the first, is that it moves the lines of accountability of aid. Instead of aid money being handled by the donors, in which case the donors are accountable to their own taxpayers and no-one else, it creates dual accountability. First the donor gives money to the recipient Government to use. That Government is thus accountable to the donor, and must show that the money was used appropriately. But far more important than this, because aid money is now on budget and managed by local Governments a second line of accountability is created: of the recipient Government spending the money to the local electorate. Through the budget debates in Parliament, these people have the chance to contest the use of aid through their elected representatives; they also have the ability to vote a Government out of power if it doesn’t use aid money well. The Government now has to justify aid money in the same way it does tax money.

Additionally, the PD addresses lots of smaller, niggling issues that seriously hamper the capacity of Governments, for example setting a target for the reduction of cumbersome and time consuming donor missions by combining them.

Continue reading

A Massive Blow

DfID have gone all Anderson Silva on the fight for more effective aid management.

A leaked memo reveals that DfID will be dropping its commitment to the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness.

This is a massive blow. The PD (as it’s known)  is very imperfect, and even the refinements we made in Accra in 2008 left plenty to be desired. But it’s the only real commitment the international community has made to improving donor systems for the management of aid – to making it easier to use, receive, negotiate. What’s worse, it’s one of the few places where recipient Governments are tied down to improvements in the way they themselves manage aid and their domestic resources.

DfID have been one of the biggest motors behind improving the PD and getting the simplification of access to and usage of aid money improved. This is not insignificant. Anyone who has spent time in a developing country Government can see how much of the recipient Government’s time is spent on managing, applying for and reporting on aid – not to mention following up on problems in its access, flow and predictability, all of which are covered by the PD. A conservative estimate for a heavily aid dependent country like Malawi is about 60% of Ministry of Finance time. Probably as much in the most aid dependent sectors, too. (To clarify – dropping the PD does not mean that DfID are abandoning the fight for better aid – but they are dropping their biggest weapon in the fight for better aid management.)

Dropping the PD means DfID have just lost a massive amount of moral authority in the fight to improve the way aid is used, and equally in the fight to improve the way Governments manage their own resources.

I’ll collect my thoughts for a more detailed post.

DFID’s attempt at an educational arcade game


The Roving Bandit sent me this link for DFID’s Race Against Global Poverty internet game. It is one of several mini games that DFID is using to educate children about their work on poverty.

The game invites players to drive around various environments, from dusty battlegrounds to lush tropical forests, delivering humanitarian aid out of the back of your large white 4×4 (with the Union Jack triumphantly displayed on the side).


You can drop off things like water, tents, medical supplies, but only get points for giving people what they need. How do you know what they need? Well, the game sort of tells you:

“This village is thirsty, cold and sick” = “Give us water, blankets, and medicine.” Not exactly brain surgery, is it?

As far as development-oriented games go (sadly, this isn’t the first) I suppose this is a decent attempt, but I’m worried about what sort of lessons this is trying to convey: That aid is easy? That it’s driven by basic needs? When I worked for the government of Malawi, I remember that dealing with foreign aid meant lots of sitting in long meetings, not driving around looking for giant crosses to drop food on.

If you were to design a development/aid oriented video game, what would it be  (aside from a wrestling/fighting game that featured a royal rumble cage match between Jeffrey Sachs, Bill Easterly, and Paul Collier)?