Today was also the first official day of my maternity leave – so I had to dip into this now in case other events stop me commenting later… this is therefore something of a brain dump rather than a fully worked through response.
The public reaction from the international development community will be polite and focus on the positive, as public reactions from the international development community tend to be these days – successive Ministers at the Department for International Development have made it clear that public dissent is not welcome. And there’s a lot to celebrate in this paper, such as the strong intent to increase support to developing country civil society organisations (CSOs), the focus on accountability, and the interest in how new technology and partnerships can transform civil society's impact. But there’s a lot we don’t know yet and those things raise questions.
Overall, the review gives us some of what we know and love about DFID: a comprehensive statement of aims for the civil society partnership; warm (if not detailed) recognition of the strengths of civil society, commitments to impact, outcomes, value for money and transparency. So far so consistent. Here are my thoughts on which areas need exploring further.
The disappearance of strategic funding: We have known for some time that the days of strategic funding were over (the PPAs, programme partnership arrangements, were never core as described as they were tied to outcomes). We expected a move to yet more outcome driven funding. But we still hoped that NGOs would have the ability to propose the outcomes, to draw on all the strengths of the sector, not just that DFID would pick focus themes. A lot therefore depends on the UK AID Connect programme to see if DFID is open to harnessing the talents of all.
Technical themes: DFID has picked three thematics for the funding rounds which have opened today: family planning, nutrition and modern slavery. These are unsurprising picks in terms of DFID priorities, e.g. DFID has had a stronger focus on family planning since December 2010, when it published a flagship framework on reproductive, maternal and newborn health. Modern slavery is a signature theme for Prime Minister Theresa May, and it makes sense to tackle it through international as well as national channels.
However we do not have the full logic yet for why these three areas have been chosen as the priority for civil society instruments. Are they the areas where civil society is the delivery group best placed to make change? Family planning has been well covered through social enterprises and the low-cost private sector (although there is great need for family planning in humanitarian crises, where NGOs may be the best placed to respond). Nutrition lends itself well to public-private partnerships.
Family planning would also be a bold choice for a charity running a public UK AID Match appeal – nutrition would seem to be less controversial for charities trying to maximise public appeal, which is what the UK AID Match funding form incentivises. It will be interesting to see how this one develops. Would UK Aid Match support more civil society oriented approaches to nutrition, such as campaigning and advocacy? It’s not the easiest sell for a public appeal. Will DFID lend its weight to making a public case for family planning? CSO's creative and marketing abilities will be stretched, which will be hard on those who cannot afford large media and marketing teams. In many ways, modern slavery seems like the best fit for a civil society programme, as it requires complex social change as well as technical solutions, and this may be an area where some CSOs can create excellent results. It may also benefit from publicity on the UK side, much as the female genital mutilation (FGM) campaigns did a few years ago.
NGOs in humanitarian crises and fragile states: There was less emphasis on the role of CSOs in humanitarian crises than we might have expected, given how much the humanitarian budget has increased in recent years. I wonder if there is anything to be made of reading this alongside the lack of mention of CSO roles in crises in the UK ODA strategy. It’s dangerous to read too much into what may simply be an omission in a fairly succinct topline document, but interesting to see how this one develops.
UK Aid Match appears not to be incentivising work in highly fragile states – it offers a list of eligible countries as those with 50 lowest human development index (HDI) scores, and 50 countries DFID deems to be in moderate to high fragility. It will be interesting to see how this ties in with DFID’s previous commitments to deliver at least 50% of its programmes in fragile states. This could be done without AID Match of course in terms of spending (the whole fund is a relatively small proportion of DFID's overall spend), but it is an interesting signal.
Delivery challenges: A chief concern for many of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) I’ve worked with has been the delivery challenge in fragile states and humanitarian settings. The technical solutions for issues like family planning, or management of acute malnutrition are fairly well rehearsed and there is a strong clinical evidence base. The evidence base we have yet to build is how to deliver services in fragile or conflict affected states, and selecting the right delivery models in remote, 'last-mile' places or where infrastructure has been destroyed.
It really matters to NGOs that DFID is engaged in this discussion, as the greater difficulties in working in fragile states affect issues that DFID is concerned with such as value for money, due diligence and managing risk in their portfolio. Given that there is only one reference to fragile states in this review, I hope that there is another document pending where DFID reviews its delivery mechanisms in fragile states across all its partners, including civil society.
Another interesting thing would be to see if the UK AID Connect programme – currently only summarised in one short paragraph – would enable NGOs to work together to tackle these kinds of delivery challenges as well as thematic challenges such as family planning. The prospect of some of the large humanitarian organisations working with developing country partners and with technology, logistics and infrastructure partners to find really 21st century ways of delivering aid in crises, while building more resilient community and national systems – well, that’s something I for one would love to work on.
It could also support those NGOS looking at new, more collaborative business models, like the ideas outlined in Toby Porter's excellent piece for Devex on futureproofing our NGOS.
Or will UK AID Connect also specify a shortlist of thematic priorities? We’ll have to wait until March to see.
Transparency: You feel like a horrible person if you look like you’re even remotely attacking a transparency policy. Everyone appreciates transparency. But I am worried about the effect on NGOs of being required to make their full supply chains IATI compliant by 2017. One organisation I worked with calculated that it took them £50,000 in technology costs and person time to get IATI compliant over two years. We are facing more tech barriers, especially with small partners, a lot of person time and a lot of data management. If for example we are ordering a print run of text books from a small local printer in Mozambique, what IATI requirements will they have to comply with? Will DFID's private sector contractors be required to do the same, and how will they be reimbursed? NGOs should get at least the same deal.
Senior salaries: On a transparency point as well, DFID has said they will make it a requirement that charities publish on their websites the pay of their highest-paid staff, with justifications. It would be nice to see a limit on this. The policy was designed to deter very high salaries, but I’m not sure transparency should be required of those taking a moderate wage below sector benchmarks. Again, it seems only fair to apply the same policy across all of DFID’s suppliers, including the private sector, to enable fair comparisons to be made.
All in all, there's lots of interesting things in here in what it is a very brief document - but one which will have quite far-reaching effects on the international development civil society sector.