What is our sector talking about? A few reflections from a chat with NGOs and Ivan Lewis MP

Following last month’s reshuffle, there is a new Shadow International Development team in Parliament, headed up by Ivan Lewis MP.

Ivan knows the international development scene well, having been a Minister in DFID from 2008-9.  He met with a group of NGOs yesterday, including Tearfund, as part of a listening process – to help him understand some of the key debates in the sector and then shape his own agenda – and I must say that I was impressed with how well he’s already on top of his brief.


Much of what Ivan shared with us is summarised in his recent post on the Guardian development blog. I thought I’d reflect here on what we, as NGOs, seemed to be highlighting as some of the key debates and issues for the sector at the moment. The top 3 priorities that stood out for me were:


(1)  Talking less about aid and more about development.  While there is a critical need to demonstrate the effectiveness and value-for-money of aid to the UK public to quiet the nay-sayers; and to enshrine the government’s commitment to spending 0.7% of GNI in law (to avoid backsliding) it also clear that aid is only a small part of the solution. How can we as NGOs encourage this government, as well as take action ourselves, to talk more about social justice, equality, empowerment and interdependence rather than reinforce the charitable mindset?  In the meeting we talked a lot about a cross-Whitehall approach to development with departments like HMT and BIS needing to play their part – and how this approach could be modelled by the Shadow Cabinet.


(2)  Working out what a “balanced approach” to the private sector looks like. Politicians across the spectrum are keen to stress the important role that business can and must play in driving growth and contributing to development.  But it is also clear that they will only do the latter if the balance of power is right between business, the state and civil society – with each able to hold the other to account.  But what does that look like in practice? NGOs were clear on the need for legislation to ensure that business activity is as transparent as possible (see Tearfund’s Unearth the Truth campaign for an example of some important legislation that we’re calling for), but we need to be able to demonstrate to government that any legislation won’t be merely additional red tape. NGOs also stressed that growth is only good for development if it is green, sustainable and equitable growth.- and better company reporting, as well as payment of appropriate taxes, is required to ensure that companies a deliver this – not just big profits for shareholders.


(3)  Making sure we’re measuring what matters. Fears have been expressed by NGOs that the new focus on a results-based agenda at DFID will skew the focus towards delivering projects where it is easy to see quick results – measuring the number of kids in school, bed nets delivered etc – rather than investing in long-term changes which focus on empowering communities.  However, the challenge has to be finding measures which show the transformational impact that activities other than direct service delivery can have, to enable us to make this case as effectively as possible.  If these are the interventions which really make a difference to communities then we need to be able to demonstrate this in a language – and with figures – that politicians can understand.


So, some reflections from chats with other NGOs and the Opposition.  Today I’m off to hear Andrew Mitchell, the real Secretary of State for International Development, make a keynote speech on the government’s priorities –  so I’ll report back on that tomorrow!





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