Weighed down by vested interests and dressed up in spin, are reforms in the public sector ever true innovations? Andrea Kurland meets Andrew Mitchell, Secretary of State for International Development, and finds unexpected insights in his ‘radical’ new approach.
Everything about the Department for International Development’s London HQ demands good manners. From the moment your security tag is issued at the door – complete with a pert instruction that it’s to be ‘worn at all times’ – until the final handshake that bids you farewell, things unfold with a sense of propriety and diplomatic tact. Before you know it, you’re readjusting your posture, enunciating your consonants and becoming painfully aware of your pseudo-smart shoes. Everything is pleasant. Everything is just so.
Andrew Mitchell is a busy man. He’s just “whizzed back” from the Houses of Parliament where he was delivering his stance on intervention in Libya, but he has a fine solution for why our interview may get cut short. Once we’ve had “a little chat”, he’ll more than happily send us “a proper, written note.”
So we take a seat at his 15-foot sandalwood table, fired up by the prospect of a meaningful exchange. This is the Secretary of State for International Development, after all – a man whose every decision reverberates through the lives of millions spread across the globe. The scope for discussion is, quite simply, overwhelming.
Less than a month ago, the Department for International Development (DFID) unveiled two significant aid reviews that are still the subject of heated debate. Collectively, they emphasise the kind of vernacular that is, no doubt, a sign of the times; ‘value for money’, ‘results-tied spending’ and ‘increased transparency’ form the bedrock of the bilateral and multilateral strategies for aid – vernacular that, in an age of austerity, should mollify grunts from sceptical taxpayers and Tory backbenchers resentful of Mitchell’s ring-fenced funds.
Needless to say, the reviews arrived amid a pressure cooker of anticipation. Public altruism is at an all-time low; according to a recent report by the Institute of Development Studies, 63 per cent would sooner see cuts to DFID than elsewhere. Yet commitment to aid is at an all-time high; overcome with benevolence, the Conservative party has upheld its pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of GNP on aid by 2013. Everyone suspected spending would increase, but when it came to ‘how’ and ‘where’, ears pricked up in recipient countries, conduit agencies and the dusty offices of academia.
Yet beyond this discourse, another conversation has been unfolding, and despite the hubbub, it doesn’t centre on aid. For many, there’s a bigger picture. As Rick Rowden, author of The Deadly Ideas of Neoliberalism, commented in the Guardian: ‘While it is vital to improve aid procedures to get more aid flowing for health, this is not the only important issue: continuously overlooked are problems with the whole development model.’
For those who fall on Rowden’s side of the line, the hotly debated problems he’s referring to throw up some fundamental challenges. Problems, they would argue, like insurmountable debt – generously dished out by colonial expansionists as a condition of independence, later deepened by self-interested lending. Problems like the liberalisation misnomer, which imposes open markets on one part of the world while simultaneously protecting those that benefit the West. Problems like the Washington Consensus hangover, which empowers global institutions to forcibly lower barriers to trade, build forts around people, and leave labour markets in the developing world vulnerable to exploitation. Problems rooted in the dogma, ‘One rule for us, and another for the rest of ’em.’ Problems that deserve to be questioned, and problems that demand innovative solutions.
“These are innovations, in the strictest definition of the word. But what if the goalposts were set that little bit higher?”
But today, Andrew Mitchell has little time for questions. He does, however, have plenty he wants to say. “So you’re here to talk about innovation,” he begins, unprompted. “Well, we have lots of innovative things happening here! And they all stem from the fact that we’ve completely changed the way in which Britain does development.”
Really? “It used to be all about big amounts of money being thrown at problems,” he continues. “Prime Minister goes off to Maputo, as Gordon Brown did, to announce half a billion dollars for primary school education. But actually it’s not the influence of money that makes a difference – it’s the outputs. It’s how many schools you build, how many teachers you pay, and more importantly, the outcomes – how many kids get good educations.”
Suddenly, talk has turned to aid – specifically, the “focus on results” that is a cornerstone of what Mitchell calls his “radically different approach”. Many aid advocates welcome results-led spending, neatly tied up as a ‘cash-on-delivery’ scheme. Simply put, if you want more money, you need to prove you can deliver spreadsheet-worthy, measurable ‘wins’ (children in school, vaccinations delivered, etc.). It’s a good thing for accountability, and a step towards a more bottom-up approach. But is impact assessment really revolutionary?
“It’s hugely innovative here to look at results,” smiles Mitchell. “Surprising, I know, but it is.”
Demanding data on results is politically astute – especially if numbers gathered elsewhere convert to smiles over here – and no one would dispute that 100 educated girls, or even one life saved, is better ‘value for money’ than a bureaucratic quagmire. But it’s in the detail that cracks begin to show. Cash on delivery, with its hard-headed emphasis on measurable wins, points to a short-term mentality that, for many, is cause for concern. If the pressure to deliver – and get paid quickly – overshadows longer-term institution building, how sustainable, or innovative, can this strategy be? Before we celebrate a focus on results, shouldn’t we ask, ‘Results of what kind?’ Or, ‘How are they measured? And by who?’
Nancy Birdsall, advocate and originator of the concept at the Centre for Global Development, briefly addressed these issues when she said, “Let us define results as measured gains in what children have learned by the end of primary school […] or a host of other indicators that ultimately add up to the transformation of societies and the end of their dependence on outside aid.” Likewise, in a piece he wrote for the Guardian, Mitchell commented, ‘It is perfectly possible to apply these core values to long-term, complex projects.’ But that’s where the explanation ends, which still leaves questions, starting with, ‘How?’
Before we get the chance to probe deeper, Mitchell is pulling out some stats, peering down through his glasses to consult a press release. “In Ethiopia – I’m just reminding myself here – the pilot there will focus on rewarding improvement in grade 10 examination passes. So the government of Ethiopia gets grants for every boy and girl that successfully completes lower secondary school.”
It’s high time to steer the conversation away from aid. Is DFID working on any innovative, longer-term strategies that will, as he puts it, help recipient countries get on a ‘flight path’ of development and free themselves from the need for aid? (The flight path analogy is one to which Mitchell returns throughout our chat – complete with a forearm that doubles as a toy airplane.)
“It’s very important not to be aid dependent,” he replies. “In Rwanda, where the international community were funding 80 per cent of their budget, we did a great deal of work in helping them build up their tax base. It’s extremely important that people should have a plan to get on that ‘flight path’ and not languish in poverty.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. Does that mean DFID is moving towards a model that focuses on economic development, not just poverty reduction? This question, for Mitchell, turns out to be a good one. It lets him segue into another innovation he’s keen to champion – the Private Sector Department he opened in January: “[Labour] thought the private sector was the enemy of development, whereas it tends to be in our Conservative coalition DNA that the private sector is an engine of development. No society remains poor for long if it cherishes its entrepreneurs.”
So how deep does this commitment to private enterprise reach? Without addressing some fundamental elephants in the room – namely a neoliberal dictionary that calls lack of sovereignty ‘good governance’ and inequitable trade agreements ‘a level playing field’ – can DFID really foster entrepreneurialism in any meaningful way? “We are all working towards freeing up the trading system for the Doha Round. Our inspiration of course is [William] Gladstone,” says Mitchell, smiling devotedly at a portrait on the wall, “who of course was a strong free-trader. And the Doha Round is designed to make sure that you stop protectionism, you encourage free trade, which enriches everyone – both rich and poor.”
“It’s not the influence of money that makes a difference – it’s the outputs. It’s how many schools you build, how many teachers you pay, and more importantly, the outcomes – how many kids get good educations.”
Just as we’re gearing up to quiz Mitchell on the drawn-out Doha Round – whether developing country coalitions like the G33, often underrepresented in World Trade Organization negotiations, are being heard – a Communications Officer, incredibly politely, interjects. And in a flash, talk turns to flood-friendly ‘scuba rice’ (“We won an award for it, actually”), vitamin-A-enriched sweet potatoes and mobile technology that could empower children in Africa to text an alert when teacher fails to turn up to class.
These are innovations, in the strictest definition of the word. But what if the goalposts were set that little bit higher? What if innovation becomes a turning point – an action so audaciously brave it shakes the world on its axis and, even if only by the smallest of degrees, sets us all on a tangential path. What if we set our sights on a new future, where industrialisation is not a privilege but a right – and where the trade conditions needed to get there are prioritised?
“My view is, don’t focus on what happens beyond 2015,” says Mitchell, referring to the end date for the Millennium Development Goals – a poverty reduction initiative that is both laudable and critical, but that alone will never address inequitable trade or loan conditions that infringe on sovereignty. “Let’s get as close as we possibly can in the next four years.” And with that, the interview ends. Perhaps today wasn’t the right time to ask, ‘What if?’
But if not now, then when? We hand in our security tags. Say our farewells. Everything is pleasant. Everything is just so.