By Graeme Ramshaw, WFD’s Director of Research and Evaluation
“Choose well. Your choice is brief, and yet endless.”
In a few short months, we will witness the debut of the newly merged Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), the budgetary impact of the economic recession triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the end of the transition following the departure of the UK from the European Union.
Each separately would have significant implications for UK’s role in the world; together they constitute a potentially watershed moment for UK aid and the future of UK democracy support.
It is a moment at which the UK can choose to take a leadership position – and do development democratically.
Today, the government faces a wholly different set of choices from those available to it six months ago. It was clear that leaving the European Union would entail certain realignments in policy as the UK defined its new position in the international community. The Foreign Secretary has been adamant that a Global Britain will be one that acts as a force for good in the world. But COVID-19 and its repercussions have signalled how tenuous the economic and political gains of the past decades are. The supposed fourth wave of democratisation that was predicted after the uprisings in the Middle East in 2011 has long since fizzled, with data from the Varieties of Democracy (V-DEM) project suggesting that 2006 was the inflection point at which the supply of democracy globally began to decline.
The new FCDO will emerge to face many choices about the UK’s priorities in the midst of global challenges. The time for making these choices will indeed be brief, but the strategy they inform will have lasting effects on the policy and practice of international aid.
The UK has had to make similar choices before. The original decision to separate out the Department for International Development (DFID) from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), compelled by scandal, nevertheless resulted in a world-class organisation with a global reputation for transparency and efficiency in the delivery of international aid. There is every hope that the merged department will have similarly successful outcomes. DFID did not simply materialise in 1997 as the department we see today. It has grown and learned over time, responding to criticism and evidence and adapting to changing contexts.
In 2010, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, I co-authored with DFID colleagues ‘The Politics of Poverty’ – a text summarising over 10 years of evidence from four different university research centres. Building on the 2006 White Paper ‘Making Governance Work for the Poor,’ it argued that politics must be central to the way development is supported, strengthening the case for DFID’s more politically informed work. Four years later, academics and practitioners who championed more politically smart and operationally nimble approaches to development coalesced around the ‘Doing Development Differently’ agenda in 2014. Their influence continues to be felt in the way in which DFID does its political economy analysis and its shift toward more adaptive forms of programming.
FCDO must learn and react more quickly. New choices need new responses. Being a force for good post-COVID requires more than helping the world bounce back; we must embrace the opportunity to ‘build back better’ by making an explicit commitment to democratic governance. The UK has long espoused democracy as a fundamentally British value, yet we have never made it a central theme of our aid policy. Contrary to much perceived wisdom, there need not be a trade-off between development and democracy – much of the evidence suggests they are mutually beneficial. Both can be pursued concurrently if the UK adopts an approach of ‘doing development democratically.’
WFD has employed this approach effectively in Myanmar to support microfinance reform through parliamentary strengthening, demonstrating that even in states that are not fully democratic, political institutions operating in a more democratic way can make valuable contributions to development. Such a strategy would harness the best of what both DFID and the FCO bring to the new department, merging DFID’s programmatic expertise with FCO’s political nous and integrating UK efforts in support of government legitimacy, inclusivity, transparency, effectiveness, and accountability with those aimed at improving service delivery, enhancing people’s socio-economic status, and ending poverty.
A confluence of extreme events has presented the UK with a formidable set of choices on its role in the world. In choosing to do development democratically, the UK can effectively balance its values with its interests while maintaining its well-earned standing within the international development community. In choosing to do development democratically, the UK can contribute to reversing the trend of democratic decline while helping countries to sustain future economic and political gains. And in choosing to do development democratically, the UK can ensure that our brief moment of decision lays a foundation for long-lasting stability and prosperity.