“Game the same. Just got mo’ fierce…”

Before, we settled things with a game of chess...

"Before, we settled things with a game of chess..."

Duncan Green recently did an interesting post charting the evolution of DfID’s thinking on aid since it was first created in 1997, through four White Papers. To summarise crudely, he suggests that the first two DfID White Papers were dominated by economics; the third was a step change in the understanding of development by incorporating ‘governance’, which he describes as politics without the power analysis; and the most recent paper takes this forward even further, reintegrating power and politics into the policymakers understanding of development.

I really cannot stress how strongly I agree with Duncan’s ultimate conclusion, that

DFID and its achievements may be one of the lasting legacies of the Labour Government.

DfID have a good reputation as one of the more thoughtful aid agencies and in my personal experience, DfID staff tend to be genuinely committed to change and self-improvement, despite the occasional feather-brained idea (in the interests of transparency: I have never worked for DfID, though they have funded me in the past).

Despite this, I’m pessimistic that really substantial changes are occurring in the aid game. DfID are at the vanguard of one stream of thinking among official development agencies internationally, For want of a more precise adjective, I’ll term these the ‘softer’ agencies, those that focus on social development and governance these days, primarily the bilaterals and the United Nations agencies. The World Bank are at the vanguard of a second stream, carrying the flame of new thought for the (mostly multilateral) agencies that take a more overtly economic view of the world, and producing a great deal of economic research to inform policy.

Though these two groups of aid agency differ in approach, both are in their major attributes part of the same tradition of development work, one which hasn’t really undergone any kind of step change in thinking about development for quite some time. I don’t deny the observed change in focus towards governance and institutions that Duncan highlighted. Rather, I would suggest that if we put this in historical context, it is simply part of a longer-term pattern, one which isn’t entirely encouraging.

Continue reading