Advancing the UK’s new aid agenda

By Graham Teskey


There has been much disgruntlement over the past year regarding the demise of UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), its take-over by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), and the savage cuts in the aid budget. As distant but interested observers, what can we be optimistic about?

Before his ignominious departure recently, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, identified seven strategic priorities for the UK’s aid program:

  • climate change and biodiversity
  • COVID-19 and global health security
  • girls’ education
  • science, research and technology
  • open societies and conflict resolution
  • humanitarian preparedness and response, and
  • trade and economic development.

These priorities are likely to remain, as they stem in part from the recent Integrated Review of Defence,  Diplomacy and Development. My particular interest is ‘open societies and conflict resolution’. Here I admit to spending 16 years in DFID working mostly on issues of governance, so I am hardly a disinterested observer.

It is impossible not to be in favour of open societies: who would want to live in a closed one (excepting the Taliban)? And of course, resolving conflict has to be a global priority, although – again – the disastrous story of Afghanistan tells us that the protagonists themselves must want to ‘resolve the conflict’, not just outsiders.

In what emerged from King Charles Street, Mr Raab identified four ‘results areas’ for the open societies agenda:

  • media freedom
  • human rights (the freedom to express one’s views, assemble, practice one’s faith, be true to oneself; and the freedom from arbitrary state power, poverty, and degradation)
  • elections, and
  • anti-corruption and addressing illicit financing.

Now that Liz Truss has taken over, it is not clear whether these will survive. If they do, I have no problem with them. Well, maybe just two problems. First, these four things alone cannot replace the wider governance agenda of effective states delivering goods and services to the poor. Second, the devil will lie in the detail. And the detail here refers to how these ‘good things’ emerge historically through time in different social, economic and country contexts. External partners cannot just ‘fund them’ into existence. Appreciating the deep underlying, country-specific, historical processes will be critical if the FCDO is to have influence and impact.

book cover: Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance by Douglas C. North

The FCDO must not lose what DFID learned – especially from its failures and optimism bias.

I joined what was then the Overseas Development Administration (ODA) in 1993. In 1996, under the prime ministership of John Major, the Governance and Institutions Department was created. It had 12 members, and I was privileged to be one of them.

We knew very little about institutions – indeed we thought they were synonymous with organisations. Then we discovered Douglass North. A light was shone on how change happens, and the importance of institutions: the formal and informal ‘rules of the game’ which influence, if not determine, individual and collective behaviour. Formal institutions include constitutions, laws, rules, and regulations, while informal institutions include greeting behaviour, marriage protocols, the use of cutlery, norms, values, and social conventions. We learned the real importance of the phrase “this is the way things are done around here”.

Over the next ten years, ODA (and from 1997, DFID) was turned upside by a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of change, and the limited ability of donors to make change happen.

With the current focus on reorganisation and restructuring, processing aid cuts, and responding to the pandemic, I fear many of these learnings may be lost in the maelstrom that is the FCDO today. The 900 or so technical staff in the new department must ensure sure that learning, evidence and research are not sacrificed on the altar of ‘immediate results and short-term-deliverables’.

The processes of economic development, social change, and yes, open societies, do not happen in three-year project cycles. DFID learned (sometimes painfully) that aid in and of itself cannot ‘deliver’ open societies. This seems such an obvious thing to say but it bears repeating: every polity is driven by endogenous, long-term historical processes of change. At best, we can help nudge reform or facilitate coalitions and networks that will, over time, contribute to the deeper institutional changes that may lead to the free and fair elections, the free media, an anti-corruption culture, and the respect for individual rights that Mr Raab wished to see.

The present danger is that the FCDO’s decision-makers will prioritise ‘results’ and ignore the underlying changes that make them possible and meaningful. This must be where the technical specialists in the FCDO come in.

The FCDO’s commitment to this new agenda implies three shifts from DFID’s ‘old’ governance stance:

  • away from the functioning and performance of the state in delivering goods and services, towards empowering and enabling citizens to claim and sustain their ‘natural rights’ (indeed Mr Raab has some philosophers on his side here – de Spinoza argued that “only democracies could be legitimate because that is the only form of government where mankind’s natural liberty is preserved”)
  • away from an emphasis on the formal institutions of the state (laws, rules, regulations, systems, and processes), to an emphasis on informal institutions (the norms, values, customs and habits that influence how people think and behave), and
  • away from an instrumental view of the formal institutions(that lead to material progress),to an emphasis in the intrinsic importance of informal institutions (that lead to individual and collective commitments to the sort of polity and society in which people aspire to live).

So if it is these deeper, underlying changes in institutions in each country that will determine the likelihood of impact in the four open society results areas noted above, which ones are the most important?

First are the institutions and the organisations that produce, collate, analysis and disseminate data and information. Data and information must be transparent and accessible to all. Disinformation will undermine open societies. Citizens need to be able to tell the difference and debate the data.

Second are the institutions that enable citizens to use that information to hold public servants, the private sector, civil society leaders, and politicians (especially politicians) to account for what they say and for what they do. At heart this constitutes the political process – where interests of individuals and groups are mediated and negotiated. Open societies are founded on open and accountable politics, where debate is transparent.

Third, but equally important, are the institutions that enable societies to live by the rule of law, and which frame how citizens think and behave with respect to what is right and what is wrong – or perhaps what is acceptable and what is not.

These institutions cannot be bought. The UK’s legal history runs to a thousand years. Free and fair elections under universal suffrage had to be fought for – especially for women. Emily Davison famously died for the vote. Why should other countries – with decades rather than centuries of independence – be any different?

FCDO is fortunate: it has inherited a fabulous legacy of staff, experience, and learning; it must build on this strength and maintain the quality, depth and rigour of its aid. Ms Truss should continue the transformation of the UK aid program by insisting on using the knowledge that has been generated over the past twenty years in its own ‘Open Society’ in the office in King Charles Street.

This blog was originally posted on ‘DevPolicy Blog’. See here.

3 thoughts on “Advancing the UK’s new aid agenda

  1. As I read this post I inferred, rightly or wrongly, that you view institutions as being static.
    Also, I would point out that institutional economics did not begin with Douglas North. Perhaps the role of technology, more specifically, technological change, needs to be considered along with institutions. Consider the impact of the smart phone on almost every society in the world and remember that it was introduced in 2007. For more insights on this topic the reader may wish to read the work of economists such as Clarence Ayres.


  2. Graham.

    As ever it is great to read your thoughts and insights. (Although across the park at the time, I worked closely with GID from my desk in the then new FCO Human Rights Policy Department.)

    I wonder, though, if we are not all guilty of making some assumptions about how policy is actually made? You advance a sense of policy being the product of analysis and learning. But I have a sense that recently policy development has been ideological in form rather than thoughtful. So much so that learning and analysis almost seems to be ruled out as a basis for planning. (And as I reflect on this, the main difference between the late nineties and now is that I personally found it easy to subscribe to the prevailing ideology then.)

    Governments do learn, however. (As Churchill is reputed to have said of the US: I trust the Americans to do the right thing – but only after that have tried everything else first.) Frustrating as it is to watch toddlers learn to walk, they have to make their mistakes in order to really own the eventual solutions. I wonder if it might be the same with governments? And if so, I wonder if the target for advocacy ought not in fact to be the officials, but the ideologues? Or more specifically, I wonder if we might not have to all get better at constructing messages and strategies based on what we observe government to do and say rather than what we wish they had said and done? Putting the politics into development – almost literally.



  3. M Siddiiqui

    “the protagonists themselves must want to ‘resolve the conflict’, not just outsiders.”
    Here’s a couple of things ‘the protagonists’ would like from the ‘outsiders’:

    Not to be a proxy battlefield for the Cold War, which was prolonged by both the Soviets and West. This being the first war fought in the country in the 20th Century.
    Once the Soviets withdrew in 1989, Afghanistan was a deeply traumatised society, what efforts were made to remove weapons from circulation, deescalate the violence and hold a convention to get all parties around the table and hammer out an agreement?
    How well did outsiders understand Afghan society before being posted there, treating what was a civil war in parts of the country as an insurgency?
    Allowing the British Army by it’s actions to regain credibility with the US after their failure in Iraq.

    We need a better informed class of International Development operatives, who don’t just rotate in for a short period, collect their danger money and are on the promise of a promotion once served. How committed can you be when the duration is 12 months?

    Similarly an excellent book which helps to understand Iraqi society another country the aid industry is active in, is The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq. A Study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of it’s Communists, Ba’thists, and Free Officers. How many of your ex DFID colleagues are even aware of this book, let alone have read it? It’s 1300 pages, if you aren’t prepared to read it, you’ve no business operating in Iraq.


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