Monday, March 29, 2010

Will the UK increase Overseas Development Assistance?

There's a bill in parliament to increase ODA. The next government will determine the bill's success. But DfID faces more challenges than convincing the UK government to keep to their old unfulfilled promises.

In the UK, election season is swinging into high gear, and many government projects are wondering if they are going to survive - whomever wins the election. Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), generally carried out through the Department for International Development (DFID) is no exception. This week, the International Development Select Committee, which oversees DFID in Parliament, recommended that whomever wins the election should increase international development assistance to 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) to support development efforts in 2013 and each following year.

Back in 2004, the UK government agreed to make the now-famous 0.7% of GNI. This year, they will commit 0.57% of the budget. The government has never made 0.7%. Indeed, the government took 11 years to increase their budget .17%. We're not talking about big percentiles - but increasing the aid budget, regardless of the commitments and the rhetoric, seems to be difficult regardless of who is prime minister. So there is a bill on the table to increase ODA to 0.7% - in other words, to keep their promises. But the bill has a pretty large loop hole: it allows the government to renege on their comittment for 'economic, fiscal or external circumstances'. Given the current climate, that's pretty much the same thing as saying that they don't really have to do anything. It would mean that once again, the UK government is making a promise it won't actually live up to - hardly the first time in the field of sustainable development. The Select Committee discouraged this - not too surprising, given that it is the Overseas Development Committee - they are likely to push their 'select' concern.

Of course, even if the bill passes - and even if, by some small miracle, it is done well, and Parliament makes the right decision and takes out that loophole big enough for any government to waltz right through it without even being singed on the edges of their fancy coats, larger questions loom. Does DfID have the capacity to work effectively in increasingly insecure and challenging environments, from Afghanistan to Somalia? How are they going to work with complex emerging actors such as China, or work with internal actors such as the State department, who is increasingly getting involved with 'development issues'? And in times of economic struggle, how are they going to get that much-sought-after 'value for money'? And of great importance, how are they going to work on sustainable development - promoting it and re-imagining it in the context of constrained resources, climate change, the need for low-carbon growth, and the renewed power of actors such as the World Bank who don't exactly have a clean environmental record (though they are making some strides in improving it)?

It's a challenging time for DfID. It's hard to know if their prospects are better with a labor or conservative government - either party might cut, not increase, ODA. Personally, I feel efficiency for sustainable development - which we are still learning how to do, and thus will make many mistakes in learning how to do it well - is one of the greatest challenges, and one of the greatest opportunities. To do it well, DfID can't work alone. Of course, they never have. But maybe one of the solutions to their problems is one of the ones they haven't yet learned to use - the British public. Can social media contribute to DfID's work towards sustainable development? DfID's Canadian counterpart, CIDA, has made efforts to have greater Canadian public engagement in their work and have found it quite challenging. Not too surprising - as corporations and others who try to make use of public engagement have found, its rarely an easy or quick process. But I suspect that greater engagement, not less, is key for DfID, both at home and abroad.

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