In 2013, for the first time, the UK met its target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid. This represented the overdue fulfilment of a commitment made over 40 years ago, and a victory for campaigners. Besides Britain, only Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates spent more than 0.7% of their national income in aid in 2013. The next step is to enshrine the 0.7% in law, a move which gained cross-party support when a Private Members Bill tabled by Liberal Democrat MP Michael Moore passed its second reading in the House of Commons in September this year. 

Michael Moore was one of a host of heavy-weight speakers and panellists at the Redefining Development conference I attended in Central London last week organised by Bond, the UK membership body for organisations working in international development. Other big names included Bill Gates, UK Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening and prominent anti-apartheid campaigner and former minister of the South African government under Nelson Mandela, Jay Naidoo (who I’m over-excited to note now follows me on Twitter).

Above left: the Redefining Development conference took place across the square from the Houses of Parliament. Centre: Jay Naidoo, chair of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). Right: Bill Gates. 
Below: the agony of too much choice – the conference programme
Photos by Jo Pratt, London, 10 November 2014.

Main topics
The main topics under discussion were the new framework that will replace the Millennium Development Goals in 2015; how the UK’s May 2015 general election could impact national development priorities (if the politicians present were to be believed – a big if, considering the make-up of the audience – the answer was ‘not much’, as they were unanimous in supporting the UK’s overseas development activities); and the impact of changes in global power dynamics on government policy and how NGOs can and should work. 

There was a fair amount of naval-gazing and focussing on ‘how does all this stuff affect me and my organisation and my future’ as well as an element of congratulatory rhetoric from some quarters about what a great sector we are, doing such great work. But this was counterbalanced and contrasted by plenty of thought-provoking and conference-bubble-popping comments, most notably from Jay Naidoo, Rajagopal PV, founder and convenor of Ekta Parishad, and Ian Shapiro, head of the private sector department at the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID). I’ll expand a bit on what they said further down (see Powerful points, below). Videos of the plenary sessions can be viewed on Bond’s website.

An action-packed day
It was a large and well-organised event – with it’s own app – that was attended by more than 900 delegates. This represents a substantial increase in size compared to last year when there were around 500 attendees. I’m not sure if one can draw any conclusions about the current state of the UK international development sector from that, except maybe that a lot of people within the sector are interested in exploring its current state and future direction. (Or, possibly, last year’s conference was really good.)

This year’s event took place over several floors of the Queen Elisabeth II Conference Centre across the square from the Houses of Parliament. It became clear to me why this particular venue had been selected when all three politicians on the panel of the ‘Political event’ session got up and left the stage mid-discussion in order to return to Parliament to vote. Clearly, to get time-pressed senior politicians to come to an event like this you need to hold it on their doorstep. For delegates, it gives a feeling of being close to the seat of power. 

There was a lot going on during this one-day event. As well as six simultaneous streams of talks and panels, there were a choice of twelve (twelve!) lunchtime ‘action sessions’, two halls of exhibitors and a well attended evening drinks reception. I struggled at times to choose the best place to be and really wished I could have split myself into several people to take it all in. I found myself gravitating towards the Programmes and Organisation Effectiveness streams, but with hindsight regretted not having spent more time in some of the big-picture-painting sessions of the Horizons stream. The Campaigns, Funding (which was largely about helping organisations to improve their fundraising activities) and Policy streams barely got a look-in, more’s the pity. Early in the day I met an old friend from university, now head of communications at Saferworld. We agreed to go to different sessions and compare notes, but it’s not the same as being there yourself. 

Powerful points
In his keynote session, Naidoo did a great job of bringing us back to fundamentals, describing the international aid system as “broken” and entreating us to “Stop treating the poor as victims”. He was fairly scathing about “MBA beancounters” in donor organisations who fail to recognise that hope and opportunity are intangibles. Although he also acknowledged that measurement is important.

This issue was reiterated during other sessions; it was claimed that there is a loss of direct relationships occurring between northern donors and southern implementing partners, caused by an outsourcing of the process of fund-allocation to large management consultancy firms like KPMG and PWC. The result of this is that the only contact between donor and implementer is a paper report at the end of the project. I think it’s good that there is an awareness at least that this scenario is far from ideal. 

Shapiro was on a panel chaired by Owen Barder which addressed the question, ‘will NGOs be left behind in the new financing landscape?’ The new landscape is being formed by things like the shift in finance to domestic governments, the greater mix of resources available to developing countries and the introduction on a limited scale of aid payment by results, public-private partnerships and development impact bonds. He framed his response by saying, “Wrong question. Who cares?” and made the point that as long as northern NGOs can continue to add value to the development process, there will continue to be a role for them. Otherwise, they should get out of the way.

Rajagopal PV made a powerful impression on me. Among the points he raised were that a lack of co-ordination by funding organisations in the North creates conflict in the South, so northern organisations need to improve their co-ordination systems. He pointed to a proliferation of networks of local implementing partners in the South, each reporting to its own Northern donor, but with little or no collaboration or information-sharing between southern networks. He also remarked on the “immense pressure” on implementing organisations to be upwardly accountable and the fact that reporting expectations are becoming increasingly technical and difficult. He asked “Are we confusing accountability with accountancy?” These are all issues that Akvo RSR attempts to address, of course. 

Other randomly interesting stuff
I was surprised to learn from Penny Lawrence, international programmes director at Oxfam, that, contrary to popular belief, empowering women does not automatically lead to economic and welfare improvements at the household level. This was one finding of Oxfam’s recently implemented Global Performance Framework for monitoring and evaluation of its programmes.

It was also interesting to hear, from DfID’s head of civil society Gerard Howe, that DfID is OK with failure. It sees failure as a necessary part of innovation, as long as risks are identified early and escalated appropriately, everyone collaborates to fix the problem, and lessons are learned and applied. However, according to Howe’s DfID colleague, Ian Shapiro, there is a difference between failing because you’re trying something new and making a mistake – the latter implying prior knowledge of a negative outcome.

Sierra Leone came under the spotlight in the plenary sessions as the biggest recipient of UK aid, with funding largely concentrated on the health sector. The panel of politicians was asked to respond to the accusation that the ebola crisis represents a massive failure in UK aid effectiveness. Furthermore, 10% of Sierra Leone nurses work in the UK National Health Service. The responses were: there was almost no infrastructure in the country to start with; corruption and misappropriation of money and medicines had been uncovered and dealt with and the resources returned; we don’t run the country, we just provide assistance; and failures of this nature aren’t a reason to stop and do nothing. Regarding the issue of the leaching of trained health professionals to the NHS, it was argued that only capacity-building to ensure people can earn a decent livelihood in a good environment and have confidence for their future employment can keep people working in their own country – another argument to keep the aid flowing. Sierra Leone was also highlighted as a success by Justine Greening, on the basis that everyone there loves Britain and you see lots of Union Jacks on display. I’m not sure I’m really on board with that argument.

Interestingly, despite attending a session on accountability, I heard no-one mention the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) the entire day. Of course it’s possible it was mentioned many times in the sessions I didn’t attend, but i certainly didn’t come away with a feeling that it’s at the forefront of people’s minds.

UK donor ranking

Above: DfID ranked “very good” in the 2014 Aid Transparency Index, second only to UNDP. Other UK government departments are a long way behind.

Despite the packed schedule, I had the chance to chat to Joshua Howgego, a journalist at SciDevNet. I wanted to let him know about Akvo Caddisfly which I felt would be right up his street, but we also talked quite a bit more generally about what Akvo does and issues around open data, an area of interest for him that he’s planning to write about in the near future. 

I also had a brief catch up with Barbara Crowther, director of Policy and Public Affairs at the Fairtrade Foundation, who I worked with for a few months at the Foundation nearly ten years ago now. We talked over how the UK Fairtrade market has suffered under the effects of the current climate, both economic and meteorological, as a warm British summer negatively impacted sales of chocolate, one of Fairtrade’s most important products.

It was great to say hi to Matt Haiken of Aptivate, a London- and Brighton-based NGO providing “ethical IT for international development” that shares a lot of common values with Akvo. We’d like to organise some loose, explorative further discussions about areas of mutual interest in the near future.

I stopped by the Poimapper stand and said hello to Mike Santer (who I met previously at a FailFest event). Poimapper is a mobile data collection tool similar to Akvo FLOW but with a range of entry levels, including a free version – which is where our approaches diverge

Other interesting individuals and organisations I connected with at the conference included: Ken Caldwell, founder of a new hub of resources for international civil society called Baobab; a freelance consultant Rachel Wiseman who focuses on developing the capacity and capabilities of NGOs; Mike Yates, head of OneWorld, an INGO “with a mission to innovate internet and mobile phone applications that the world’s poorest people can use to improve their life chances, and that help people everywhere understand and act on global problems”; and the people on the Bond stand who indicated that Akvo could have a useful role to play within some of Bond’s transparency, monitoring & evaluation and technology related working groups. 

UK opportunities for Akvo?
To date, Akvo has not focussed greatly on the UK piece of the international development sector. We’ve had a London office since our beginning, and it’s where we steer our global communications from. And we have UK software engineers too. But we don’t have a partnership team in the UK right now. Instead our relationships with DfID, the open aid and knowledge communities, and UK NGOs have developed more indirectly. However, as the UK government does play a substantial and influential role in international development policy and activities, the INGO sector is mature and well-developed here, and DfID sets the tone by being at the forefront of aid transparency globally, maybe now is the time to ask the question, should we set up a UK-based partnership team to establish new relationships here? It’s clear to me that there is no lack of opportunity. 

Jo Pratt is communications manager at Akvo, based in the UK.