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Golden thread and sustainability

Friday 23 November 2012

Next year, UK aid will reach 0.7% of GNI, and although that is less money than it would have been a few years ago, it will be a major celebration that a G8 country has finally met the 1970 commitment.

So what happens then? What is clear is that in the economic climate, if we start campaigning to match Scandinavian countries giving 1%, we are not going to get very far. Instead the quality and use of aid needs to become the main discussion.

For those of us who have worked in the UK on development in the period since 1997, it is going to be a seismic change. We have always been able to champion particular development topics – HIV, education, reproductive health, nutrition, etc. -  without ever being asked by government what we would cut to fund our latest priority.

The growth in aid levels meant we could always champion new areas. Now we are going to have to have much stronger analysis of what aid should NOT be doing as well as what it should. This situation is not new to colleagues in the 1% countries or in countries where aid budgets have stagnated.

So while we prepare for that new world, the UK government also needs a different discourse on aid. The focus that Andrew Mitchell established on showing results from UK aid does not in itself deal with sustainability.

Whereas DFID under Labour was a champion of building the role of the state to provide for their people – for example on building health systems rather than single disease projects – Mitchell’s DFID went much quieter on these areas. With Justine Greening, we are still listening to identify where her interest might be, but the new emphasis on economic development for poor countries is a welcome indication that she is thinking about sustainability.

Similarly, David Cameron’s golden thread of development is being picked over and interpreted, with a lot of confusion for what it might really mean. Some of it is interesting and inspiring. Development does require a state which is accountable to its people (and not to donor countries) and enables people to develop economically.

The PM does actually say he wants to help countries stand on their own two feet – which I have long argued would be Conservative language for sustainable systems. There are questions though. Are the property rights he wants to see respected really those of the smallholder or does it mean the multinationals buying up large swathes of land. Does it mean the kind of land reform that South Africa is challenged to do, or the rights of white farmers to hold land taken in colonial times?

What is missing in this Golden Thread so far is the role of the state building systems that can provide healthcare, education and social protection for their people. This is central to sustainability, to the strength of states and to economic development.

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