Saturday 21 January 2023

Development & Diplomacy: ‘twas ever thus

The merger creating the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) in the UK was not the first of its’ kind; Australia and Canada had done it years before and there were other examples of merged mandate departments, such as that in the Netherlands combining development and trade. But given the size and scale of DFID it is perhaps the most closely watched, and remains in the word of its’ departed Director General Moazzam Malik a “work in progress”. This is a blog musing on how the new Department might turn a chimera of doing development and diplomacy coherently into a reality in the coming years.

What am I talking about? 

One of the challenges with this debate is that people use terms with multiple meanings interchangeably. What is development? I do not accept the traditional refrain of ‘poverty eradication’: such a feat is impossible by definition as poverty is relative and thus constant, and therefore non-eradicable. I also don’t think either outcomes such as $1.25 a day or inputs such as 0.7% of GNI are very helpful. That's not a metric to meaningfully measure anything except spending. When I met Amina from Dar es Salaam, she was probably earning over $1.25 - but her future had been stolen by corruption: economic metrics often miss what really matters. 

I take inspiration from former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios’ thesis that what actually counts, is what you can’t count. In other words, if the human condition is to be elevated then that is likely to be because of power, social norms around gender, class and/or the institutions within which communities can collaborate, compete without violence or hold each other accountable through electoral politics. Not by how much you’ve spent, or what their daily income at any one point is: Natsios termed this sort of measuring the "counter-bureaucracy". 

So for me development is about advancing a process of change that all societies – that's all of ours, North and South – are constantly engaged in. This is therefore a state of freedoms, accountable institutions and rules-based systems which allow all in any one society to advance their own individual potential and secure adequate resources to live comfortably and free of fear. An example could be a schoolgirl from a marginalised minority who is able to walk to school confident of not being attacked, and widely supported to fulfil her potential. She and eventually her children thus grow: in potential, in their contribution to society and in relative economic security. This goes all the way up Maslow’s hierarchy. 

Where does diplomacy fit? 

If we take classic political science theory then International Relations are an “agora” – the Greek idea of a public space – within which states negotiate, compete and sometimes contest. Scholars often argue that there are no rules in this game: that the agora is an anarchic space with each State acting according to rational self-interest. That implies multilateral institutions or global norms are largely superficial, a means to an end with States paying lip-service when it suits. I don’t accept this notion fully, and believe here that most demonstrably democratic States are sufficiently sophisticated to mean that policy makers are minded to make the world a better place, as much as pursue their national self-interest. The two are often the same. Examples here are the human rights campaigners of the 1970s evolving into the political leaders of the 1980s & 90s and who delivered much of the human rights agendas that even authoritarian States seek to associate themselves with today. 

Plaza de Mayo demonstration about the 'disappeared': Argentina, 1982

So how do we do it? 

We learn from each other. Here are three challenges which are based on some core lessons, some of which are hard to hear depending on which side of the fence you traditionally sit.
  • Change takes time. The World Development Report of 2011 told us that societies emerging from conflict (which is where most poverty and pestilence are to be found) take an average of 30 years to break this cycle. That is well beyond what are often short-term horizons involved in foreign policy making.
  • Silos are bad. The development sector as a whole is fragmented, specialised and often works at cross purposes. That is largely down to the way in which donors fund it; but it is also reflected within donor agencies themselves. Foreign policy specialists illustrate that to achieve big things you need to work across multiple complex issue areas in a way which allows you to combine your advantages to good effect. The more successful COPs are examples of this. Development professionals need to become much better at doing the same: so the challenge to a new Department like FCDO is how do we support colleagues to develop and apply new combined skillsets? 
  • Incentives matter. This is an internal as well as an external point. Within a merged donor agency or Department, we need to ensure individuals can become professionals across traditional areas of both spheres. But incentives apply externally too. We need to recognise the hard truth that development programmes; either bilateral or multilaterally, have at times created perverse incentives that have worsened the circumstances of vulnerable populations, not enhanced them. Examples here are of structural adjustment programmes which often meant elites in Governments became more accountable to international creditors than they did to their own populations. In worse cases such programmes were instrumentalised in pursuit of harmful policies, entrenching exclusion and in some cases leading to violence or war. 
So what next 

Success for me would look like foreign policy making being conducted with the application of development insights from recent decades. In turn we would see development programming being designed in a way which is cognisant of wider political dynamics and risks, including that they could be doing more harm than good. Applying this approach to all aspects of foreign and development policy might get us towards a place where we could actually crack the nut.

No comments:

Post a Comment