In May this year, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) released its highly anticipated strategy for international development. As Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, makes clear in her Foreword, at the macro level this strategy represents a fundamental shift in the UK Government’s approach, with development being more clearly integrated into wider UK foreign policy objectives. A lot of the commentary emerging from the international development sector so far has focused on the proposed shift of funding from multilateral to bilateral aid, and on the four clear priorities that the strategy outlines – on increased overseas investment, women and girls’ education and empowerment, humanitarian assistance, and tackling global challenges such as climate change and global health.
Yet what I found most interesting about the strategy was not what the renewed approach to international development will be, but on how the government plans to achieve this. One aspect stood out particularly strongly for me: the commitment to a ‘patient approach.’
This certainly resonates with the work of Crown Agents’ Government Systems Strengthening practice, which I oversee. The focus of our work is very much on the ‘unglamorous’ process of patient change to tackle underlying structural challenges in the countries where we work. We pride ourselves on having longstanding relationships with governments, and in many cases we have played a critical role in supporting successive waves of reform. We’ve learned that systems improvement is rarely a linear process, done and dusted within the scope of a typical three-year donor-funded project window, but that meaningful and sustainable reforms take time to become ingrained.
By adopting this patient approach, we’ve been able to make significant improvements to how Ukraine procures medicines, which had not only saved the Ministry of Health $65.7 million over 5 years, but also increased the availability of life saving drugs for patients and helped to create trust in the government’s healthcare reforms. On the other side of the world in Nepal, Crown Agents has managed the roll-out of a system to track and manage public finances at the local level, helping to improve efficiency, accountability and transparency. Neither of these interventions were quick fixes – securing sustainable long-term improvement has involved engagement over many years.
Being committed to a longer-term process enables better understanding of the local context and plays a crucial role in building relationships based on trust. We’ve also seen this in our work with the Ministry of Finance in Ghana, where for more than ten years we’ve been supporting better public procurement by undertaking independent value-for-money audits on their behalf, enabling the government to negotiate lower cost infrastructure investments. We also see the value of that longer term perspective in the training and professional development programmes we run, targeted largely at senior civil servants from governments across Africa. Through this work we’ve been able to sustain engagement with many institutions, often providing core skills and building capacity for successive cohorts of officials.
Of course, there’s an inherent tension between the need for patience, and the sense that some of the issues prioritised in the FCDO’s International Development Strategy feel really urgent. For example, the pressing need for action in response to climate change or in making sure that every girl around the world receives 12 years of quality education. Managing this tension is perhaps the single biggest challenge that the Department will face in moving the strategy into implementation. At Crown Agents we talk about ‘accelerating self-sufficiency’ as a means to embrace this dichotomy; ultimately our aim is to support reforms that tackle the structural challenges which have prevented faster progress. Only by getting to those underlying barriers will we be able to see sustainable, long-term improvements and enable countries to become less reliant on external assistance over time.
Below the inevitable top-line focus and commentary on what the International Development Strategy tells us about Liz Truss’ ideological worldview, or questions around bilateral vs multilateral aid allocations, it’s been heartening to see important indications on the direction of travel around how the FCDO will approach development in future. With Crown Agents’ long-standing experience of developing and implementing long-lasting reforms for governments around the world, the proposed approach aligns well with our view of how best to accelerate self-sufficiency as the route to sustainable development. As the phrase goes, ‘patience is a virtue’!