The UK International Development Committee kicks off an inquiry on the Philosophy and Culture of Aid

GPG’s Deputy Director Rhiannon Hollis examines the International Development Committee’s forthcoming inquiry on the Philosophy and Culture of Aid, and how it relates to GPG’s programmes and methodology.

This blog looks at the initial stages of the new inquiry by the International Development Committee, and how the issues it may explore look from the GPG perspective. The GPG delivery approach is one of partner-led programming, creating flexible and tailored projects which are informed by local priorities and designed jointly with those it supports in governments, parliaments and civil society. It aims to strengthen parliaments and other institutions to help them to be more effective, resilient and responsive to citizen’s needs. It looks to connect citizens with their representatives, strengthening dialogue. In the belief that politics matters, GPG works with individuals to deliver politically agile programmes.

The UK Government confirmed in December that the House of Commons International Development Committee (IDC) will continue to exist, even though the Department for International Development is being merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to form the new FCDO.

Although a few other House of Commons Select Committees cover the work of more than one Government Department, the maintenance of the IDC cannot have been a foregone conclusion. It is likely to be welcomed by many in the International Development Sector as it will provide an opportunity for inquiries and reports specifically focused on development aid, separately from foreign policy. Select Committees are great at giving a voice to differing perspectives and they can often ensure difficult questions are raised, meaning the Government has to answer criticism and justify its plans in detail.

The IDC will now have the role of scrutinizing all UK Overseas Development Aid, whether provided by the FCDO or other UK Government Departments. In this context, the IDC has launched an inquiry into “The Philosophy and Culture of Aid.” This wide ranging topic will mean the Committee has the chance to set out its stall and decide the approach it wishes to take, and the influence it wishes to exert, in the context of the widely discussed cuts to the UK Aid budget.

In late February the Committee held an initial session in its inquiry. A press statement noted the session would “allow members to explore with witnesses the possible priorities and terms of reference for its forthcoming inquiry”, as the Committee is “keen to learn where the […] inquiry could add the greatest value to the debate on the UK’s development strategy and broader public discussion about the culture of aid.” Invited to speak were Arbie Baguios, Founder of Aid Re-imagined; Lena Bheeroo, who is Lead for Anti-racism and Inclusion at Bond, a Committee Member at Charity So White, and a Working Group Member with The Racial Equity Index; Professor Jamie Gaskarth, Professor of Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Open University; Sophia Gaston, Managing Director at British Foreign Policy Group; Themrise Khan, an Independent Development Professional; and Charles Vandyck, Head of the Capacity Development Unit at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI).  A broad selection of speakers then and liable to bring with them some lively and controversial perspective on the issues at hand.

It is pretty common for Committees when starting a new inquiry to adopt this approach, especially where the issues are complex or perhaps sensitive. The intention is often to allow an airing of the key arguments, and to examine the assumptions behind the public or sectoral debate on an issue, so that the Committee can really start to get under the skin of the topic. It also means general questions can be asked, allowing the Committee a broad look at the issue before it decides where to focus its efforts. Finally it means the Committee members have the chance to decide what approach they may wish to take to this particular inquiry – where will they be most interested to question and explore, what do they want to hear more about, and what killer questions do they think they will eventually want to put to responsible Ministers?

The Committee has already set the broad scope of its inquiry, looking at why the UK gives aid, what the benefits are to the UK of giving aid, the problems and challenges faced by the aid sector and how aid delivery can be improved. The early stages of the inquiry are intended to help the Committee develop a more detailed brief for its work on the issues.

At the session on 23 February, Charles Vandyck of the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI), based in Accra, encouraged the Committee to look at how the supply side of international aid can achieve value for money and tackle power asymmetry in the aid context. He took the view that present aid funding favours organisations run like businesses. The sector, he said, was competitive – “all about egos, logos and silos”. Local organisations might find themselves having to “shave off some of their uniqueness” to access aid funding. He urged that donors should look for “flexible funding mechanisms”, running for 3-5 years, allowing local organisations to determine their own programmes, and providing support to the administrative function too. He added that it was vital to look at “capacity-building for resilience”, and move away from one-off training sessions. Aid should be based on mutual respect.

Leena Bheeroo, of BOND and Charity So White, stated that the UK Aid sector was predominately white at management and board level. In her view the sector should reflect those it worked with. Themrise Khan told the Committee that in her view aid was a political tool, not altruistic. She objected to the use of the term “soft power” in relation to aid – “power is power however you approach it,” and she told Members that “no-one actually wants equal and just global relations.” She pointed to the fact that recipient countries have “little or no control” over how aid is spent as an element in this power imbalance – aid should be given directly from one government to another, because “aid should not be an imposition of your priorities”.

The Committee’s members, including Mrs Pauline Latham (Conservative), Virendra Sharma (Labour) and Chris Law (SNP) along with the Chair quizzed the panellists in depth about the problems they saw and the changes they recommended. At the end the Chair told the panellists “we appreciate you being provocative, it’s what we need and what we hoped from this panel.”

The Committee has since held a session on 9 March with a range of big players in the field including Oxfam and Crown Agents – ensuring it hears both the point of view of established organisations in the field, and the input of less mainstream thinking.

After 18 March, the Committee will then review the evidence it’s received (which could be from individuals, pressure groups, organisations in the field, charities, academics, funders – anyone really) and issue a more detailed description of the questions it will consider in the inquiry – the “terms of reference” that will shape its work on this issue. One of the interesting choices for the committee as it enters the next phase of the inquiry is what it seeks to achieve. Aid cuts have been the focus of plenty of press and political commentary and criticism. If the Committee feels the sweeping cuts are a mistake, then is there scope to move the needle on the government’s position? What kind of inquiry would be needed to do that? Is the Committee looking to broaden debate in the sector? Does it see itself as a broker between those in the sector who envisage a different, maybe more targeted and effective, way of doing things and the policy makers in Government? The terms of reference once launched may give further insight into these questions.

So, how does all this look from the perspective of GPG? As mentioned above, GPG focusses on partner-led programming informed by the circumstances of the individuals, Parliaments, and organisations it works with. Rather than deliver one-off training courses, GPG works to foster links between local partners and GPG’s expert associates so that ideas can be explored and tested and self-sustaining reforms enabled that genuinely work for the context. Its programmes are “participatory” and often longer term, in line with some of the ideas favoured by the IDC panellists.  But those working at GPG would take a more optimistic view than some on the panel about the possibility of supporting genuinely participatory programmes that create positive change.

In the context of Coronavirus, which makes international travel all but impossible, many of our programmes are becoming increasingly local in delivery as well as design, and this may well be a trend that will continue. A diverse team, representative of the many different places where GPG works, is one of the organisation’s strengths, and work to build on this continues. GPG, its associates and others in the sector will continue to watch the inquiry with great interest to see what it has to tell us about the future of aid in the UK and what discussions it may generate in the global context too.