DFID is 20 years old: has its results agenda gone too far?

Brendan WhittyDFID just turned 20 and Craig Valters (right) and Brendan Whitty (left) have a new paper charting itscraig valters changing relationship to results 

Focusing on results in international development is crucial. At this level of abstraction, how could one argue otherwise? Yet it matters how development agencies are managed for these results. We know that with proper management systems, aid interventions can be very effective; but if poorly managed, they can be harmful.

Yesterday, we published a paper which analysed how and why the results agenda emerged in the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). Our primary focus was on the politics of this story, how it intersected with DFID’s management, and the responses to results changes. We asked whether DFID’s results management is fit for purpose; that is, does it reflect the UK’s development ambitions?

We think this story is important and timely. There is growing pressure—from politicians, the public and the media—for aid spending to prove its worth. It is time for a serious conversation about what results DFID and the UK government can achieve and how they should manage their interventions.

The story of DFID: 1997-2017

In 1997, the New Labour government created DFID as an independent department. The Secretary of State, Clare Short, forged an anti-poverty agenda based on principles of global partnership. Instead of being accountable for directly delivered results, DFID was judged on its contribution to a series of international targets. Under Hilary Benn’s leadership, this was maintained. The UK committed to spending 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on aid, hosted the G8 summit where leaders committed to Make Poverty History, and helped shape the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness.

DFIDs 20 years review_timeline2007 onwards shows an erosion of Clare Short’s internationalist agenda in order to justify the 0.7% commitment. The political climate became more troubled: the UK economy began to suffer, and public support for aid declined, yet DFID’s budget grew. Together, the new Secretary of State, Douglas Alexander, and DFID’s leadership started to develop results-based management reforms focused on their own deliverables.

Andrew Mitchell accelerated the agenda. In 2010, the ‘results agenda’ became synonymous with the reforms he made – the new Business Case, Bilateral Aid Review and changes to Results Frameworks. For some these reforms were evolutionary, for others they provoked major concerns. In 2015, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) – formed under Andrew Mitchell – critiqued the results agenda for encouraging a focus on short-term economy and efficiency, over long-term, sustainable impact.

Ongoing internal reforms in DFID appear to be highlighting possible routes towards more flexible and adaptive programming. Yet there are numerous contradictory pressures within the department, and staff remain constrained by the political environment and the results agenda.

What does this story tell us?

God of evidence and performanceFirstly, crucial elements of development management systems are driven primarily by party political pressures, rather than by the complex realities of aid implementation. As a consequence, DFID has adopted some ambitious, untested or unfit for purpose reforms.

Secondly, DFID staff members have interpreted these reforms differently based on their professional interests and policy beliefs. The results agenda empowered some (such as statisticians and economists) and marginalised others (such as those working on governance).

Thirdly, DFID has been pulled steadily back to central government accountability standards, reinforcing centralised control and fixed target-setting. This has sat uneasily with the realities of development assistance, which often require local ownership and flexibility.

Finally, the 0.7% commitment at a time of austerity has both protected and exposed DFID; requiring it to deliver quality aid, while under pressure to spend, working in fragile states, with relatively fewer staff and fixed results commitments.

So what’s next?

The results agenda has focused DFID on what it can achieve. In some form, this needs to remain. Yet it has shifted this focus to the short-term, prioritised upwards rather than downwards accountability, and unhelpfully promoted blueprint planning. A different approach is required.

Create a results agenda fit for purpose

Change the assumption that we can predict, with certainty, what our interventions will achieve. Rejecting this world-view means taking results and accountability more seriously, not less. Interventions need to be based on the best Dogbert the quantifier 2available information, with regular testing to see if they are on the right track, rather than being overly focused on pre-planned numbers.

Be more honest with the British public about aid

Political leadership is crucial. According to Andrew Mitchell, ‘there’s absolutely no reason why this should be complex for the public. It’s the job of politicians to explain complex things to the public in a way that they understand.’ Fair enough. But let’s not patronise them either. A more honest conversation about aid and development is required – how, where and why it works, why results aren’t always tangible, and why it sometimes fails.

Support reform in how DFID is managed

Reformers within DFID are seeking positive change through ensuring flexibility, encouraging greater learning, and focusing on the causes of poverty and conflict. These reformers require support. Beyond that, the full implications of 0.7% should be rethought. The government must adequately staff in-country expertise, commit to longer-term programmes, and reconsider where money can be spent effectively – which won’t always be in fragile states.

Do we need a reality check?

payment by resultsReformers inside and outside of DFID have to tread a careful path – keeping radical alternatives alive while tinkering around the margins. The negative elements of the results agenda cannot easily be overturned. It is tied to wider political decisions that have shifted DFID’s culture: a (re)centralisation of power to the centre over country offices, increased privatisation and a gradual move towards aid in the ‘national interest’.

This story brings the UK’s international ambitions into the light. Part of the political question is: are we looking to buy results, or support longer term deep-rooted changes? We presume that politicians across the ideological spectrum have an interest in the latter too. We need to move beyond a results agenda which narrows the gaze of the development industry, to an approach which takes tackling the causes of poverty and conflict seriously.

Update: here’s the video of the launch event, with the authors up against several former DFID ministers

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4 Responses to “DFID is 20 years old: has its results agenda gone too far?”
  1. Very interesting report – fascinating to reflect back on the changes at DFID through various Secretaries of State, and through a different prism than the usual one of UK national interest. There’s a lot that is justified in the critique of the results agenda, but I did have two reflections:

    1) The report seems quite starry-eyed about ‘country ownership’… Clare Short’s budget support-driven era is held up as something of a golden age and the current emphasis on “buying results” is contrasted with “help[ing] build institutions so that countries can take on development challenges themselves”. But the use of the word “countries” implies a single, harmonious entity whose main agenda is promoting the interests of the poorest. In fact that is often far from the case… the word “countries” was a convenient euphemism for “country governments” in the Clare Short years, and the language helped to downplay the way aid can sometimes strengthen those governments against their own people. Much of the reason why aid has moved away from Paris and budget support has to do with greater awareness of political economy, and aid’s political impact, as well as the results agenda.

    2) The very last para in the conclusion draws attention to the role of non-aid factors in influencing the lives of people in developing countries – such as climate change, the arms industry, global trade systems etc. This is absolutely right and could have been emphasised more – DFID has often raised these issues under successive Secretaries of State (along the lines of “a Department for Development not an aid implementing agency” but they could have played a much greater role in DFID’s history than they did in practice. Perhaps the subject for another report?

    • Craig Valters

      Hi Justin,

      Thanks a lot for reading and your thoughtful comments.

      1) On country ownership: I agree with your points here (so didn’t mean to come across starry-eyed). In the detail of the report (e.g. last para p. 22) we’re more nuanced. We think that the country ownership agenda was built on a good problem diagnosis, but struggled in practice. The conclusion aimed to provoke questions around the UK’s development ambitions, rather than categorically say we must choose one way over another. If the aim of UK aid is to provide humanitarian aid and direct service delivery, the results agenda (as it stands now) may work. But if the UK has the ambition to tackle the causes of poverty and conflict, it is often an uncomfortable fit. Of course the UK can (and should) try and do both of those things in different times and places, but our view from the literature and our interviews is that the results agenda pushes DFID staff towards the former.

      2) On non-aid factors: I would love to write more on this. It’s so bound up in the politics of the government in power. If they see development as a priority, then a vocal secretary of state – leading an independent department – can have quite some influence on these other issues. It links back to the ambition point above. Are we serious about ‘results’ for people in poorer countries? If so, we’d think about our non-aid decisions too.

  2. Stephen Golub

    Kudos to you, Duncan, for highlighting this under-examined technical issue and the same to Craig Valters and Brendan Whitty for analyzing it. But having briefly taught and otherwise worked on results frameworks and logframes for DFID, USAID, UNDP, consulting firms and other development entities, I believe that you all may be overestimating the intellectual integrity of the results machine even as you critique it. My perspective, from within the belly of the beast implementing these approaches, is more skeptical regarding progress in reforming this aspect of development practice.

    In practice, such frameworks and the allegedly results-focused perspective they embody really represent efforts to falsely indicate progress and attribution at the cost of real development learning, impact, value and principles. For example, projects are designed around the notion of what supposed results can be generated – with an emphasis on the “supposed” – at the cost of political economy analysis and investment in individuals and institutions actually interested in positive change. And a blizzard of data is generated that misleads development agency HQs and the political/governmental leaders to whom they report. What’s even worse, entire bureaucracies and consultancies have evolved to defend and extend this increasingly counter-productive system; they have built up strong vested interests in perpetuating the value of their own supposed expertise.

    Fortunately, most of the research and consulting I’ve done has not been bogged down with logframes or results frameworks. But I’ve seen, just to pick a few examples: a DFID consultancy that was so fixated on working with bogus frameworks that it ignored the politics at play (and in fact, the consultants involved admitted to knowing nothing about political economy analysis); in another DFID consultancy, the DFID HQ office that was supposedly overseeing the results reporting simply let the consulting firm involved change the entire framework involved to suit its own purposes, without even checking with HQ on the changes; a USAID consultancy in which supporting real reformers was ignored because it was far easier to construct targets by working with anti-reformist government elements; and a UNDP consultancy in which the results and targets were tacked on retroactively simply to say it had a results framework in place.

    In addition, even the notion of fitting in complex processes and realities into framework boxes is so counterproductive that it beggars belief that a field focused on addressing these realities has let its thinking be boxed in this way.

    Now, having said this, some of these rigid frameworks may be somewhat suitable for building roads or dams. But not for building governance, human rights, gender equity, accountability and a host of other development activities and goals.

    Is there any easier, better way? Of course. For a given project, programme or CSO, simply ask what are we trying to help achieve and how to we ascertain progress, problems and lessons (including unanticipated results). Then tailor research to that given initiative, writing it up in a narrative form, integrating quantitative or qualitative data, and generating that data as appropriate in view of the scale and budget of the initiative. In addition, look beyond the duration of the initiative to return years later to see whether the results proved sustainable and whether any other progress or problems flowed down the line. Obviously, there is much more to be said about this, and in that sense I am admittedly not doing this complex issue justice. But a simpler system would generate far more light, in comparison with the heat and misleading data the current, largely bogus system produces.

    Ironically, more focused and thoughtful research, including but not limited to long-term results and lessons, would bolster both development effectiveness and the case that can be made to politicians about how the long-term field of development can and does sometimes yield long-term impact. But as I’ve indicated, the vested bureaucratic and other interests involved run so deep that I’m not optimistic about positive change in this regard, the contributions of this blog and the good efforts of Valters and Whitty notwithstanding.