Why is Britain such an outlier on aid?

My friend Ha-Joon Chang is Korean, and argues that for a development economist, growing up in South Korea is like being a physicist

Just add 'overseas aid'?
Just add ‘overseas aid’?

at the birth of the universe. I was reminded of that when the UK parliament enshrined spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid in national law last week – for an aid wonk, being British means you live, talk and debate in a bubble characterized by a high degree of interest, resources and a constant and exhilarating exchange of ideas. When I travel elsewhere in the developed world (Australia, North America, continental Europe), the contrast is painful: development ministries being closed down, budgets cut, and (at the risk of doing an injustice to any number of talented, dedicated activists and researchers) a palpable sense of being marginal to political debate and priorities.

The UK now accounts for roughly 1 in every 7 of the world’s aid dollars, and DFID is the only remaining cabinet level, operational aid ministry. The UK-based INGOs are disproportionately large and influential (4/11 of the largest are headquartered in the UK, and of the remainder ActionAid , now based in Johannesburg, has British roots). We have IDS, LSE, ODI and a bunch of other consultants and top academic institutions on developmental issues. So why is the UK such an extreme outlier on development? Is this just about a hangover of post-colonial guilt? Or is this more like an industrial cluster – a developmental Silicon Valley?

I raised this last week during an online debate on the Guardian Development Professionals Network and got some interesting thoughts. Action Aid’s Nuria Molina felt that “the ‘original sin’ is the post-colonial guilt, probably. But this is debatable because other former colonial powers don’t have such an industry. Today, I think it’s better explained by the very existence of an industrial cluster which, like any bureaucracy or organisation, really, tends to be self-preserving. For instance, there are many countries where I have lived where Development Studies degrees do not exist at all. Development is not a science, but rather people study politics and participation, or sociology, or water engineering, or medical degrees, etc. and they contribute to development – mostly at domestic level, but also overseas – according to their expertise.

Zoe Marks came back with ‘The question, though, is if we work with the ‘industry’ metaphor: what are we producing? Who determines supply and demand? To which I replied: OK. In my limited


understanding, the secret of clusters like Silicon Valley is that they are particularly creative and productive because they generate externalities between firms, e.g. on training and career development, and the buzz of networking produces piles of new ideas. The UK aid cluster and its revolving door between thinktanks, NGOs, media and DFID churns out a horrendous tide of aid jargon, but also some useful learning and progress. Their ‘product’ is knowledge and narrative, both academic and practical, about development, which is of interest both to our domestic market (including the public that funds us) and as an export.

But clusters can go out of business when new, lower cost entrants enter the market – eg when East Asia nearly destroyed the Brazilian shoe industry. Then the cluster is forced to move up market e.g. to design or higher quality, if it wants to survive. Perhaps the Aid equivalent would be that UK organizations focus on policy and research, and let low cost entrants like BRAC International do the service delivery. Worth developing?

Rashmir Balasubramaniam liked the cluster approach: ‘I’d be inclined to call it a cluster. Having just moved back here after some 10 years in the US, I can report that there’s a global health cluster rapidly developing in Seattle that is having increasing local and global effects. It is inspiring and drawing more and more people from within the US and from around the world to it, thus expanding the cluster and its influence. Such clusters reach a tipping point, beyond which there may be no (easy) turning back. Is that what happened to the UK? And has anyone quantified the impact of this development cluster on the UK?’

In this argument, the 0.7 vote is an outcome of the UK’s busy Aid and Development cluster, which generated both the campaign pressure, but also the underlying critical mass of knowledge, interest, concern and consensus,  that  led to last week’s extraordinary vote. Your views please!

This post also appears on the Guardian Development Professionals Network blog.



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22 Responses to “Why is Britain such an outlier on aid?”
    • Duncan Green

      Lots of objections to 0.7 Jiesheng, but from a political point of view, if anything, that makes the decision to turn it into law even more remarkable

  1. Niels Keijzer

    Interesting analysis, maybe some links could be made to the ongoing discussion on a possible division of labour between ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ Non-governmental Organisations?

    On the factual side of things, one comment in relation to your observation that “DFID is the only remaining cabinet level, operational aid ministry”.

    I’m writing this mail in Bonn, Germany, one street away from its Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) with a full minister represented in the cabinet. Other EU countries that I know off (don’t have the full overview though) are Finland and Sweden. Whether a separate ‘aid ministry’ is the most effective way to shaping and implementing development policy also depends on that country’s approach to government and policy change. The UK parliament’s recent beyond-aid discussions come to mind here too: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/international-development-committee/inquiries/parliament-2010/beyond-aid-the-future-uk-approach-to-development-/

  2. Daniel Stevens

    Geography can, though not always, plays a part in clusters … and maybe one reason why the UK might sustain this cluster is that it remains a global travel hub and also is not too far off timezones in the African continent. World Vision International (the coordinating hub of the World Vision federation) some years back moved its executive headquarters from California (where it has historical roots) to Uxbridge … and I am assuming it was not the superior sun and surf that attracted them!

  3. James Whitehead

    The UK aid cluster, the revolving door, connections, buzz, etc can also be described as a rich eco-system – a highly connected, complex system (that is linked to other systems). In the world of social innovation there is increasing discussion about ways of developing richer ecosystems (e.g Oxfam and SIG – http://bit.ly/1AXLSWV). Shaping and deepening complex systems is what we are also trying to do in areas such as climate change adaptation (http://community.eldis.org/accra/) so perhaps we need to turn the mirror back on our own system.

    We should be asking what we want the eco-system for aid to look like in 10 years rather than only asking what is the future of INGOs; we should be asking where the power will lie, what connections we want to see and how we can shape it.

  4. Gareth Price-Jones

    Hi James, Those questions are being very much asked and answered on the humanitarian side, partly because they are fundamental, but the World Humanitarian Summit has been a particular trigger. So far we have some interesting challenges between the theory and practice – for example, a clear consensus has emerged that we need stronger national capacity as well as an effective international element, but (as yet) very few solutions describing how we make that shift in power practically happen in a political world, or how we cope when national capacity is co-opted or repressed by those creating the humanitarian need in the first place. On Duncan’s point, I think a more sophisticated case for aid has been much more consistently made for decades in the UK, which helps resist the notion that charity should stay at home. Events like the recent Comic Relief are an important part of national culture, and help raise the costs of otherwise easy political wins like cutting aid.

    • Duncan Green

      The latter, I think Chris. I don’t buy the detoxifying argument, as they have cut much more politically sensitive things while increasing aid. Although there will always be elements of expediency and enlightened self interest, I’ve come to the conclusion that a large part of the reason is that all parties (or at least their leaderships) actually think it is the right thing to do! And the cluster idea might help explain where that idea comes from and is sustained

  5. Rocco Blume

    An accusation leveled at the Conservative party over the last 4 years is that they have defended aid to ‘detoxify their nasty party image’. Whatever the motives, it is certainly the case that the ambitious aid agenda conceived by centre-left New Labour in the late 90s has been largely championed by a centre -right Conservative government whereas in other countries more right-wing parties have fought and succeeded in cutting aid spending.

  6. Nicholas Colloff

    I think an aid agenda has been internalized into the culture of the UK much more deeply than elsewhere; and, people who are in favor of that agenda are much more likely to make it a component of their voting choice than those who are hostile (and not all of those voters are simply definable as center-left).

    If you are close to it too, from a political point of view, it is obviously a place where the UK ‘punches beyond its weight’ which appears to make politicians highly enthusiastic, irrespective of whether the punching is useful or not!

  7. Ken Smith

    I’d vote for a mix of post-colonial guilt and the Protestant ethic. I think other ex-colonial powers France/Spain would look like this on Aid if they hadn’t the Catholic Church to deal with development and aid. I’d be interested to hear about Dutch aid and Nordic aid industries

  8. Jose Luis Penya

    I cannot decide: the UK aid industry (ups…I meant sector) clearly has roots in the colonial past. Please mind that the word “expat” meant in origin a British national moved temporarily to run colonial administration. But there is also a good case for the ‘cluster’ approach, as it is true that the quality and number of organisations working closely in the UK has reached critical mass. It may ever be a relationship with the domination of global finance, mining and other transnational in the City of London: my East African friends use to tease me calling the INGO “the maintenance system of the Globalization”, adding that “…first you send us the companies that exploit us and then you send us the NGO to repair some of the damage…”. A bit cruel, maybe, but probably true. It may be even related to the guilt factor so typical of the UK (sorry, I’m Spaniard: we don’t have such a thing). British citizen give so generously…because they feel guilty of their over-consumption lifestyles. But I am going round and round because, now I realize, this is not very removed of the (post) colonial argument.

  9. Paula Garcia

    I would argue though that this could also be seen as a new way of colonialism. The developing world that is being “served” is usually subject to Theories of Change which inception comes from the same “white men” using top-down approaches to development.

    On the other hand, a tipping point and clusters make a lot of sense.

  10. Alexo

    Actually the 0.7% target is somewhat arbitrary coming from a council of churches call to spend 1% of wealth on poor countries. In the sixties, the UN estimated that 0.3% came from private sources and simply lopped it off the 1% to agree the 0.7%.

    Here an oped on how South Africa spends more than DOUBLE the 0.7% GNI target on what is essentially unconditional budget support to Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho and Swaziland:

  11. Tony Addison

    Good thought provoking piece. Like most good clusters, the dev cluster has received much government support. Even back in the dark old 80s, UK was good at supporting development research, though on a far smaller scale than today: it carried us through the Thatcher years.

  12. Garth Luke

    I think there are probably many factors contributing to the aid cluster in the UK and the legislation of 0.7, including:
    Ease of travel
    English Speaking
    Base of a number of strong advocacy NGOs
    Richard Curtis, Comic Relief etc
    Historical connections to many developing countries, particularly in East Africa
    Part of pro-development EU
    US unwilling to do more in development
    English desire to still be a world power
    Large enough country to influence things globally
    Development industry and academics influence on MPs and source of policy actions.

    However it appears that public support for aid is pretty much around the same level in the UK as in most other donor countries. I think the increases in aid and the 0.7 legislation are probably as much the result of luck as anything else – commitment from Blair and Brown and then the need for coalition government with the Lib-Dems. The picture in Australia would look much more rosy for aid if the government had to go into coalition with a centrist party.

  13. Ian Falkingham

    In terms of the level of political support for the aid budget in the UK one needs to recognise teh extraordinary strength of pro-aid grass roots groups. From the Fairtrade movement to some of the church groups most towns and every constituency have people demonstrating that there is popular support for development.
    I have worked in Oxfam shops for many years and while they are far from sophisticated lobbying group they ARE something really powerful. They are run by local people, demonstrably representative of their communities. They may not understand the ins and outs of development politics… but they care enough to turn up every week and work for nothing to contribute to the movement for change.
    And in terms of this discussion: they are very visible in their communities, in the loocal papers. MPs and others know they are there believe me!
    More than 20,000 people volunteer in Oxfam shops every week, hundreds of thousands more donate their own clothes, books and other possessions in the hope of helping others improve their lives. They may appear non-political but they are (quietly) a very British force for change.
    The biggest mass-participation movement for development in the UK?

  14. Ken Smith

    Following on from Ian’s comments I agree that’s important to see the Fairtrade movement in a political context. So when we buy Fairtrade products we should not just consider the value of the Fairtrade premium that some particular producers receive but we are showing the politicians we care about these issues.

  15. Achim Kemmerling

    For me, since development aid has many purposes (social, commercial, security), it can be backed by large political alliance who are all in for different purposes. It seems to me that Conservatives in the UK might want it for different reasons than Labour, but both agree on spending. In that constellation, the UK is probably not unique, but nonetheless different. (Which is not to deny that the aid industry/cluster idea would not have currency as well…)

  16. Sam Gardner

    I think the UK is reaping the first mover advantage in the globalisation of aid.
    You started with an advance in aid NGOs with a string organisational culture and priniples (Save the children, Oxfam, etc) while the rest of Europe was still at war.
    They mostly speak English giving them an advantage in the current world.
    As DFID strengthened the NGOs with their untied aid, the NGOs were strengthened for competition at home and in Europe (the UK-ecosystem gets a lot of its funding from the EU to).

    But what if you were wrong, and it is just a sideshow? What if the real debate is not where you think it is? While AID is definitely more and more knowledge based in the UK, foreign policy is in general not more so. Proof: while there is good reason to believe that aid works best if independent of foreign policy, for political reasons most foreign offices have reigned in the independence of aid, and by doing that, the aid has become a less efficient tool, also for foreign policy. (e.g. governance and human rights efforts led by the foreign offices are in general rather short term without any perspective)

    What if it just surfs a temporary wave of funding? Convincing 1 politician that aid is useless could be sufficient to bring it all crashing down? Remember, these are the politicians that wanted the aid for African boat immigrants to be cut.