World news story

Up close and personal with international development

Blog by the Head of the UK’s Department for International Development Vel Gnanendran.

Vel Gnanendran
Vel Gnanendran

In the wake of the #Trump and #Brexit, there is a lot of talk about whether we’ve taken our eyes off the ball on globalisation. I want to look at that from the perspective of the government-donor relationship at country level, what I’ve previously called #OldAid.

But first, lets rewind. Tanzania has a history of pioneering new approaches to development. In the mid-1990s, the government and donors established ways of working here that set the model for the rest of the world. That model was primarily built around General Budget Support (GBS) where donors provided resources into the budget to finance agreed outcomes. It helped achieved great things, from difficult reforms to millions of children in school. But as GBS has declined, that model has broken down. Absent a replacement, development partners – and I include myself in this – have lapsed into bad habits. So our collective challenge now is to build a new model for Tanzania. One that is fit for purpose in a world of constant change.

To build that new partnership, we – the donors – need to play our part. We have to get our own house in order and ask ourselves what we can do better. As a starter for five, here are my thoughts.

“We choose to go to the moon”.

In 1962, President Kennedy directed the US government to achieve what many thought was a pipe dream. Seven years later, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Why is that relevant to how donors work in Tanzania? Because we need to ask ourselves whether we have got the right balance between process and substance. Right now, I don’t think we have. We spend too much time talking about spreadsheets and not enough time thinking about how to ensure every Tanzanian child receives a quality education.

“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom”.

This quote (from Gandhi) encapsulates two issues. First, and something I’ve mentioned before, is the need for more humility among donors. We shouldn’t presume to dictate, not least because we don’t always know the answers. Two-way conversations usually get better results than instructions. Second, we spend too much time in Dar es Salaam, in government offices and talking to ourselves. I am a firm believer in the notion that better development comes from hearing different perspectives, even when that takes us out of our comfort zone.

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

Any aficionado of the Paris Principles will hear all the right words here: government ownership, partnership and mutual accountability. But in reality, we’ve not been great at sticking to these principles. There is always a balance between what a country wants to do and what its development partners are prepared to support. But I worry that balance has shifted too far to the latter: it’s about what we want to do, our requirements and our incentives. When our partners propose something we don’t like, our first instinct is to try to change them rather than change ourselves. We have to learn to step back and let Tanzania choose its own path.

“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet”.

In my two years in Tanzania, I’ve learn’t that when things go slower than we would like, there are often good reasons. For example, internal consensus building (or indeed disagreements) within government ministries. That’s normal, even good. So when a decision is taking longer than expected, we need to take the time to understand it before rushing to judgement. And when there are differences of view, being patient, private and respectful often allows our partners the space to find better solutions.

“For the times, they are a changin”.

Underpinning all of this is the unconcious bias that Tanzania is a donor-dependent country, with traditional aid as the only solution to all problems. That no longer holds true. Aid is a much smaller, albeit important, piece of the picture. Tanzania is a proud country. And demography, technology, urbanisation and climate change are going to reshape its future. So when we think about how we, as development partners, want to support Tanzania, we need to be thinking about tomorrow, not today and certainly not yesterday.

Now I’ve been deliberately extreme and one-sided in my portrayal of us donors here. I’ve not, for example, discussed what our Tanzanian partners might do differently. That’s intentional. I want to force us to ask the tough questions of ourselves.

Why? Because we need to be better. We need to find new ways of working that reflect a more complex world, seize the opportunities that this complexity presents and prepare for the future. We owe that to all the young people in Tanzania. Under the leadership of the Tanzanian Government, thinking about this new model has started. I’m optimistic that it will lead to a new approach that will ultimately benefit the Tanzanian people. That’s what Global Goal 17 is about. And if we get it right here, Tanzania can once again be a model for the rest of the world.

Published 16 November 2016