Protect development from party politics

On January 13th, a leader in The Times and Kevin Watkins in The Guardian attacked the development policies of the UK Conservative Party, from opposite sides of the political spectrum.  The Times Leader says that the Conservatives are wrong to commit themselves to increase aid to 0.7% of GNI; and Kevin Watkins says that the Conservatives are wrong to want to reform the way aid is given.   Both attacks appear to be bone-headed efforts to make political mischief by undermining not just Conservative party policies but the mainstream consensus on development. Neither attack does credit to its perpetrator.

The Times criticizes the Conservative Party for their commitment to maintain the planned increases in development spending. The leader recycles discredited assertions about the negative effects of aid rather than offering solid analysis.  There isn’t a single reputable econometric study showing that aid causes harm through  exchange rate appreciations, corruption or slowing progress to democracy.   Peter Bauer, whom the leader article quotes, was criticising Cold War foreign assistance programmes which bear little resemblance to aid programmes today. Aid today is increasingly practical, targeted and measurable, just as The Times says it should be, and it works.

Britain was one of 147 countries which pledged we would “spare no effort” to meet the Millennium Development Goals. As The Times implies, we should not be judged on what we spend but on what we achieve. On this basis we are not yet doing enough to achieve the goals to which we are committed.  That is why it is important that Britain should continue to increase its world-class development programme, and press other nations to increase their spending too.  To resist this on the grounds that 0.7% is an arbitrary figure is a clever-sounding point for a debating society, not a reasoned argument against the commitment of all the main political parties to meet Britain’s international promises, and to press other countries to do the same.

From the other end of the political spectrum, Kevin Watkins in The Guardian seems to be determined to use development to score party political points – and to do so he has had to put himself in the strange position of arguing against the country-led approach to development which is supported by all main UK political parties.

Under the Labour Government Britain has helped build an international consensus that aid works best in support of a country’s own development strategy; that policies imposed from outside rarely work; and that governments should be accountable to their own citizens for their policies and actions.  Kevin Watkins rightly supports these points in other contexts. Yet he apparently won’t entertain the idea that other countries may have different views from his (and mine) about the best way to organise and fund public services.

I’ve read the Conservative Green Paper and it does not call for state services to be rolled back in developing countries. It says that governments should guarantee access to education for all their people; and that donors should fund that guarantee and support and encourage governments to choose whatever path enables them to expand education provision fast and effectively.  It does not propose or advocate market-based solutions in education: it says explicitly that the Conservatives would work with the public, not-for-profit and private sectors.

Kevin Watkins quotes the Green Paper saying “We bring a natural scepticism about government schemes“; this is the entire basis of his claim that “the Conservatives will use aid to roll back the state in key services“.  But it is clear when you read this sentence in context that the Conservatives are questioning the role of the government in aid, not planning to tell other countries how they should manage their public services.

There is now a valuable cross-party consensus on the need to use aid money to support countries’ own development priorities and programmes.  The challenge today is how to bring public sector reform to the aid business – including the possibility of some market-like disciplines to make aid more effective and accountable.  There are proposals in both the Government White Paper and the Conservative Green Paper to make aid more transparent and accountable and to link it more closely to results. Kevin Watkins might have used his space to tell us what he thinks about these ideas instead of trying to score party political points on development.

(By the way, I admire Kevin Watkins, but I’m not comfortable with the fact that a UNESCO official, paid from public funds, is using his position to make highly partisan and inaccurate attacks in the newspapers on the main UK opposition party. )

I’ve got no party political axe to grind: my interest is in supporting the best possible policies to accelerate development, so that the world is a fairer, happier and safer place for everyone.  It seems odd that the Conservatives should be attacked from both left and right for articulating development policies which seem to me squarely in the mainstream of development thinking.

The cross-party consensus that the UK’s development budget should continue to increase, and that British development policy is amongst the most effective in the world but nonetheless there is room for improvement, should be a matter of shared national pride, not scorn and sniping from whichever direction.  Let’s sustain that consensus, and not allow development policy to be used as a political football even in the heat of an election campaign.

Update: see Kevin’s reply in the comments.

8 comments on “Protect development from party politics”

  1. Would be interested to hear your thoughts on David Cameron’s Chatham House speech last week – seems to me that was a bigger deal for DFID than the Watkins/Times articles.

  2. As someone who thinks in principle that debate about parties’ policies is an important part of effective democratic/ accountable/ legitimate governance, I’ve been itching to respond to this interesting and thought-provoking post. I think there’s a lot to be said about the relationship between different parties’ positions – which may turn out to be more different than what their Green Papers and manifestos say – and ensuring that UK development cooperation is as effective as possible.

    However, my temporary status as a UK civil servant should perhaps restrain me, as does Owen’s analysis that (paraphrased, with apologies) acting as if the presumed development consensus is real is the best way of ensuring that a future government remains committed to sensible (?) policies on poverty reduction – although I am not totally persuaded by that analysis.

    [I have been playing around with a matrix of real/unreal commitments or consensus, and best guesses about/probabilities of a future government, to consider whether challenging a party on the truthfulness/reality of its stated position is wise or unwise, but have found myself too busy trying to understand Ethiopian politics and ownership to complete my half-baked analysis!]

    What I’d really like to see is a response by Kevin Watkins. In his absence, readers might be interested to have a look at Duncan Green’s recent piece on his dream manifesto for development http://www.leftfootforward.org/2010/01/from-poverty-to-power/

    Owen, do you think that putting forward a dream manifesto is acceptable or does that – and the judgement that is implicit in that about what a good policy and hence (assuming there are policy differences between parties on the issues in the dream manifesto) party position on international development is – put at risk the supposed cross-party consensus?

    How much or what type of discussion of parties’ policies on international development is OK? What if someone’s voting decision were shaped by a party’s likely approach to international development? Wouldn’t that then merit some discussion of the likely/possible differences between parties?

    Just some thoughts. Sanitized of my party political views. Almost. And with thanks to Owen and Duncan for interesting posts.

    PS: I will be interested to see what my former ODI colleagues – a think tank that prides itself on its political neutrality and basing its advice on “evidence” – might have to say about this sort of thing, particularly with a change of government (and major client) in the offing.

    Owen replies: Alan, I too am in favour of debate about party policies. But my point in this blog post is that these two particular articles are not part of a such a debate. Kevin Watkins criticizes a policy that the Conservatives do not advoate; this does not debate the issues, but tries to use development to score party political points. The Times leader is a combination of ignorant and misleading generalisation, and arguments unfit for a university debating society. Where there are substantive disagreements between the parties, we should debate them. But making false claims about parties development policies does not contribute to a serious debate about the best way to approach development.

  3. I guess this comes down to whether one thinks the claims are false or not. The Green Paper provides one way of assessing the veracity of the claims. History provides another. And time will ultimately tell.

    For what it’s worth, Owen, I agree with your reading of the specific bit of the Green Paper that you suggest Kevin uses as the basis for his claim re rolling back the state. But perhaps his analysis/expectations are based on more than an interpretation of the Green Paper? It would have been better if that had been made more explicit.

    Where’s Kevin?

  4. Just a brief reflection on Owen’s comment on my Guardian piece.

    As I understand it, there are two concerns. First, Owen takes the view that I have gravely misrepresented a serious contribution – in the form of the Conservative Party Green paper – to the international development debate. Second, and relatedly, he is “not comfortable with the fact that a UNESCO official, paid from public funds, is using his position to make highly partisan and inaccurate attacks in the newspapers on the main UK opposition party.”

    On the first point, I fear it is Owen who is dealing in misrepresentation. My specific concern with the Green Paper is on education. The short section dealing with this important subject is a cut-and-paste job based on the work of James Tooley. For those of you unfamiliar with this particulal genre, it claims that the way forward for the poor is to promote low-fee private schools and a range of market-based interventions that will be familiar to those of you that follow the proposals of Michael Gove in the UK. As it happens, I do not discount a role for low-fee private providers under the right conditions (though Tooley’s work is a case study in ideology trumping evidence). What I object to is the failure of the Green paper to address in a serious way the challenge of strengthening public education systems through increased and more equitable public financing, more effective aid, the recruitment and training of teachers, and – above all – a stronger focus on marginalised communities. The chronic failure of the Fast track Initiative, which DfID could and should have done more to reform, is one of the many issues ducked in the Green Paper. But you can’t help wondering why some of the major public sector success stories in education of the past decade appear to have slipped the attention of the Conservative Party, while the rambling of Messrs Tooley et al get top billing. My view is that Owen is mistaking platitudes about the ‘right to education’ for substantive policies. Alan Hudson suggests that my Comment piece is based largely on interpretation. This is a fair point. But I stand by my interpretation.

    On the subject of platitudes, I wonder if Owen himself should declare an interest. The Green Paper enthusiastically endorses a proposal that he is closely associated with: namely, cash-on-delivery aid. In a nutshell, this envisages aid recipients getting development assistance after they have achieved a specified result (such as getting x number of children through primary school and achieving specified test scores). It all sounds terribly attractive. But when you scratch the surface this is an approach that transfers risk from donors to aid recipients – a point made in a critique developed by Paolo de Renzio and Ngaire Woods at Oxford Univeresity’s Global Economic Governance Programme. Imposing a new form of ‘cash-on-delivery conditionality’ on poor countries does not strike me as a forward-looking approach to aid.

    Finally, a word on UN officials making ‘partial and inaccurate attacks’. To set the record straight, I do not hold a brief for the Labour Party – and I did not write the Guardian piece as a UN official. My interest in development is not with conforming to whatever idea Owen of a disinterested UN official, but in what happens to real people. I leave it to others to decide whether I’m being partial and inaccurate. Hopefully, we can debate these issues without casting silly professional slurs. I stand by the claim that, when it comes to education, the Green Paper signals an ill thought-out drift towards market based approaches which, applied in poor countries, will damage equity and progress towards the education for all goals.

    Owen is obviously entitled to act as a spokesperson for the Conservative Party – and to defend the Green Paper against what he sees as ‘partisan attacks’. But I can’t help feeling that, on this occasion, he is doing some highly partisan and inaccurate barking up the wrong tree.

    Owen replies: Thanks for replying, Kevin. I certainly do not act as a spokesman for the Conservative Party.

    But I think we agree that your case is based on your interpretation of the Green Paper, not on what it actually says.

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Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and