Expert engagement series: Myles Wickstead on WFD’s ‘crucial’ role

In 1993, when Myles Wickstead first arrived in Nairobi to head the UK’s British Development Division in East Africa, his team of advisers was entirely made up of economists, engineers and natural resources experts.

Within a couple of years that had completely changed, thanks to the emergence of “an exotic new species”. The novelty of this new breed of ‘governance advisers’ reflected the emerging importance of a new approach to aid. “None of us really had any idea what this role might be,” Prof Wickstead remembers. “We thought it had been misspelt.”

Yet such was the rapidly changing context of the period – a post-Cold War environment where the conditionality of EU membership was strongly reflected in aid spending – that by the time of Eliminating World Poverty, the November 1997 White Paper from the newly-established Department for International Development, the importance of governance had become central. “Raising standards of governance is central to the elimination of poverty,” the White Paper stated.

Prof Wickstead, who spoke to WFD colleagues in the latest of our expert engagement series, recalls: “We recognised right from the start you need other things in place if you are going to deliver on your basic health and education objectives. You need reasonable governance and peace and security. If you don’t have those you can’t build the health and education systems you need. But you can’t build those health systems and education systems unless you have strong economic growth, which you can’t have unless you have the private sector given a significant role – and it won’t invest unless you have good governance.”

Group of Black People Marching

Now governance advisers form an essential part of Britain’s aid work in the countries where DFID operates; governance is fundamental to the UK aid strategy, which works to strengthen “global peace, security and governance”. It’s also fundamental to the SDGs, which enshrines the principle in Goal 16. Yet, as WFD Chief Executive Anthony Smith (on right in picture above) pointed out, Goal 16 avoids using the word ‘democracy’. Does this mark the demise of a political approach to development, which had been much more central to aid in the immediate post-WW2 period?

“You have to get behind whatever the politics is in a particular country to do it – that may be why people have avoided the word,” Prof Wickstead, a former WFD governor, replied. “If you use the word democracy, that prescribes a particular way of giving people voice. There may be other ways of giving people voice that don’t come within what we’d call a democracy.” Take Somalia, for example. After many years as a non-functioning state, it is beginning to make progress. That simply could not happen if the role of tribal elders was disregarded. “If you don’t bind those people in, you’re not going to make progress.”

Graeme Ramshaw, WFD’s Director of Research and Evaluation, recalled our engagement with Richard Youngs, who had explored the loaded nature of the word ‘democracy’. He sought to understand how goal 16’s inspiring but vague language can be operationalised. The answer, Prof Wickstead suggested, might be that “people can pick and choose” – and that goal 16 gives people a “hook” to work with.

This becomes increasingly important in a world where citizens’ expectations about good governance are being driven upwards by social media. If teachers in Kenya do not bother showing up to work, for example, parents are being invited to alert officials with text messages. “This is a really powerful mechanism,” Prof Wickstead says. “Young people are extremely familiar with it, so I think it’s going to continue to develop momentum.”

eliminating world povertyThe changing shape of aid is a big factor to consider, too. In the next ten to 15 years aid as “concessional resources” will not be nearly so important. Instead the challenge will be about partnerships – a key pillar of the SDGs’ approach. In practice, this means finding new and innovative ways of engaging with governments, civil society and the private sector. Strengthening parliaments in order to ask questions about companies in the extractive industries, for example, will be essential, Prof Wickstead believes.

“Good governance and peace and security have always been absolutely central to the success of any kind of aid and development programmes,” he concluded. “What WFD is doing is really crucial and I think will continue to be so. Aid will become less and less about putting loads of dosh into a lot of developing countries, but that requirement for expertise and skills development will continue to be there for at least a generation ahead.”

WFD celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2017. Our work continues to develop, as progress on effective monitoring and evaluation and our new integrated programming concept shows. Yet we have remained committed to improving governance in the countries where we operate – as the 1997 White Paper puts it, to “encouraging democratic structures which can hold government accountable and give the poor a voice”. Myles Wickstead wrote those words nearly two decades ago. As he confirmed this week, they will continue to be relevant for many years to come.

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