What’s changed at DFID? Reading the signs

The Coalition government, just like the last Labour government, have promised to hit the magic number of 0.7% – that’s the proportion of the UK’s income that will be spent as aid.  But the way they spend it might look quite different.

Let’s get textual for a minute.  Here are ‘word clouds’ for the coalitions’ business plan for DFID and the last Labour government’s Public Service Agreement for the department (words that are bigger are used more often and vice versa, and if you click on the pictures you’ll get a bigger and clearer version).

Wordle: DFID business plan 2011-15 
Coalition government: DFID Business Plan, 2011-2015

Wordle: DFID PSA 2007-10
Labour government: DFID PSA agreement, 2007-2010

What does this tell us?

1. Transparency is in, Effectiveness is out

 ‘Transparency’ features large in the Coalition’s business plan.  DFID has promised to give all of us who pay for it more information about how aid is spent.  The idea is that the exposure will force ministers and civil servants to make sure that what they’re doing has a clear impact, immediately visible to taxpayers. The last government took quite a different approach. ‘Effectiveness’,was the instrument of choice for making aid better. This is about improving aid by improving the relationships surrounding aid – chiefly between the governments who give aid and and those who receive it. Of course the two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive – the new USAID strategy, for example, promises both.

2. Aid is up, development is down

Look at the different sizes of the words ‘aid’ and ‘development’ in the two word clouds. The coalition is all about measuring the direct results of the UK’s aid – numbers of children in school, numbers of anti-malarial bednets bought and so on.  The last Labour government took the approach that it is almost impossible to isolate the impact of aid from one country on the complex process of development. Assessment was based on overall development progress, measured using the Millennium Development Goal indicators in DFID’s priority countries, with the clear acknowledgment that only a part of this would be down to DFID.  It’s hard to see how these two approaches can be reconciled, so this might turn out to be one of the biggest differences between the two administrations.  Watch this space. 

3. Bilateral is hot, multilateral is not (for now)

This doesn’t come across so strongly in the word cloud (except perhaps in the fact that the word ‘UN’ appears in the PSA but not in the Business Plan). But it’s clear from reading the documents that the last government strongly favoured a multilateral approach to most of the key problems identified, while the coalition is more focused on the UK’s bilateral programme and how the UK can achieve results this way. This may change – given the commitment in the last Comprehensive Spending review to shrink its administrative costs it’s hard to see how DFID can spend its way to 0.7 without channelling more money through institutions like the World Bank.

What does all this mean? Let’s not go too far with the A level English Literature approach – the real changes will come out over the years to come, as the coalitions’ approach evolves. But they are pretty pictures, and they give some clues about where DFID is headed, at least.