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What’s missing in the UK’s international aid review

Cities are invisible in the UK Department for International Development (DFID) review of UK aid. Yet only a year ago DFID were calling cities “The New Frontier” in a high profile document that proclaimed “Cities are the future of the twenty first century”. In contrast, the aid review does not discuss cities at all. Its focus is strongly tilted towards rural areas, and support for UN-Habitat is to be withdrawn. All “urban” voices within DFID appear to have been silenced.

What does the review say?

“UK Aid: changing lives, delivering results” makes good the important pre-election commitment to earmark 0.7% of UK GDP for international development from 2013. The government deserves credit for moving the UK towards this UN target. However, there has been justifiable criticism of the “securitisation” of aid announced in the review. Some 30% of the budget is to go to unstable states. “A clearer focus on conflict prevention” is how it is described. The extra money for places like Afghanistan will be invested in things like “freer and fairer elections” and “law and order”. That’s good news for political parties and for policemen; neither have particularly good reputations when it comes to corruption. In fairness, the report makes clear that hard evidence will have to be produced that demonstrates that every taxpayer’s penny is helping to lift people out of poverty or improve health outcomes. Yet there are many steps between conflict prevention as a general aspiration and such measurable and attributable results on the ground.

The review also encompasses a re-assessment of UK aid through multilateral agencies. It is deeply disappointing to see that the work of UN-Habitat, the only one directly focusing on human settlements, is dismissed so lightly. UN-Habitat largely works through community-based initiatives and with the most marginalised.  Amongst DFID’s criticisms are that it is small scale and limited in the scope of its operations, and overlaps with the UN Development Programme. There is also dissatisfaction with its administrative costs and transparency.

Another UN body chopped from the list of agencies that the UK will support is one concerned with adapting places to climate change. This is the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.  It performs particularly badly on its “contribution to UK development objectives.”

The Commonwealth Secretariat has been put into “special measures”, like a poorly performing English school. It has been given two years to demonstrate improvement. It has probably been spared the fate of UN-Habitat and UN-ISDR because the one of the declared aims in the review is to re-emphasise the importance of the Commonwealth, a theme not conspicuous through the rest of the review.

Why cities matter

The role of economic growth in lifting people out of poverty is stated at the outset. The World Bank has shown that already cities account for about half of the economic activity in less developed countries. Yet no connection is made by DFID to the vital part that cities and urban growth play in economic development. Mumbai generates a sixth of India’s GDP. Better managed urbanisation should be part of a poverty-reduction strategy. Instead, the DFID focus is resolutely on rural poverty. Of course, rural poverty matters, and better health and more children (and especially girls) in schools are good things. However, as Will French and I argued in our work on the state of the Commonwealth’s cities, we are seeing widening inequalities within cities, which pose threats to security and economic development. It is notable that the recent unrest across several countries in North Africa has been urban-led and focused on jobs and the lavish life of the elites.

Water and sanitation get a mention. Given their contribution to unnecessary diseases and premature mortality it would be astonishing if they did not. However, DFID’s focus is not on the burgeoning urban slums, but on the needs of rural communities. Another crucial facet of rapid urbanisation is also mentioned. This is security of tenure and rights to land and property, a theme discussed in my previous blog on Aleppo. Help is promised through aerial photography to create such rights for over 6 million people. Good, but is that enough?

The frontline in the struggles to get adequate and secure shelter, with access to basic services, is now (and will increasingly be) on the edge of rapidly growing poor cities to which rural migrants are drawn by the hope of getting work. Accountants like to slice up budgets into separate baskets. Urban professionals know connections are better than silos and that aggregate sums need to be turned into place-based action.

What now?

In short, this is a review scoped by concerns of the military and security forces, conducted by accountants and steered by agricultural economists. More than ever, we need a strong voice explaining the links between urbanisation and development. There is a body of academic theory and evidence, which the World Bank draws upon, to argue the case for putting cities at the centre of development thinking. The RTPI should articulate this, connect with other built environment professions and with campaigning bodies such as Homeless International, and lead the case for a settlements-based approach to aid. While you are waiting write to your MP.

30 Responses

  1. It’s true that cities are essential in development. But theUK can’t put it’s eggs into every basket. the MAR if you read it shows that DFID has been funding 43 different organisaitons! That’s and overkill in my opinion. There’s got to be a ranking of organisations. Yes the MAR is far from perfect but for now it shows that a narrower focus is much better that splattering your paint everywhere.

    • I agree that “the UK can’t put its eggs into every basket”,and that some rationalisation can be justified. My point though is that urbanisation is an overarching issue that requires a strategic response, but is not addressed at all in the review. A ranking of organisations – against criteria that take no account of the growth and significance of urban poverty – is a static and narrow way to approach the basic questions about getting people out of poverty.

  2. I think its about also addressing the issue of aid fragmentation and too-many-cooks-spoil-the-broth. there are so many UN organisations dedicated to urban growth and urbanisation so cutting funding to UN-HABITAT doesnt mean and end to work on urbanisation.

    Also thi is just one countries methodology. The UK’s development footprint isnt the only one in development. the two ARs should be something everey donor country should perform i order to truly deliver development.

    • OK. UN-Habitat is not the only agency doing urban work, but it is the only UN agency with Human Settlements as its raison d’etre. At a time when governments have not really grasped that urbanisation is a major development challenge, to diminsh the voice of UN-Habitat does not help. UK govt. did not take a high profile at UN-Habitat Governing Council in 2007 or 2009 to make its points there.
      As to the desirability of a review process for any aid programme, then of course, as a planner I cannot disagree. The comments in the MAR on the EU programmes are interesting in this respect, for example.

      • I’ll concede that UN-HABITAT’s work is important but I wonder if they’ll response to DFID’s criticism. The Commonwealth–http://www.thecommonwealth.org/news/34580/234667/040311dfidreview.htm–has done so.

        One thing to draw out then is this new DFID–under the Tories–is pushing hard for effectiveness thier own style. It may not be correct–as you pointed out wrt to the issue of failed states–but at least there’s a plan. There isn’t a plan coming from Labour–all Labour wants is reaching 0.7% , an old target.

      • Yes I saw the ComSec reply and have sympathy with it, and stand by my comment that the review says it wants to boost the Commonwealth (a commitment William Hague gave before the election) but then fails to really set a strategy for doing so. I hope UN-Habitat do respond: my proposotion is that the “urban professions” should also respond. As to Labour’s (non-) policy, I agree. The drift of DFID away from concerns wih urbanisation began under Labour.

  3. Here is a working link to your report on the State of the Commonwealth cities http://www.thecommonwealth.org/files/222182/FileName/DiscussionPaper8.pdf

  4. Thanks for your blog on this Cliff. It’s certainly worth arguing against such myopic and awkward behaviour of UK aid as it is a real blow to the work and image of UN HABITAT, and more importantly to the people UN HABITAT tries to lift from poverty. A danger of such a gesture is that is raises questions about UN HABITAT’s credibility, which could disrupt years of hard won trust with urban poor communities and governments, (many of which still fail to grasp or accept the urban issues UN HABITAT deals with – such as benefits of upgrading slums and informal settlements). Perhaps it’s too early to tell, but when promises and mottoes of “commitment over time” are simply forgotten in the face of “1 billion slum dwellers” – then it’s no wonder that so many see the potentials and impacts of western aid with such scepticism.

    • Hi Adrian,

      Agree that UN HABITAT’s legitmacy is now questioned but this is only one of its donors. Unless other countries conduct a MAR and produce the same findings I’m not sure how much it will be negatively affected–case of multiple principals in principal-agent theory

      • My basic point remains that what we are seeing is part of a long withdrawal of DFID from engagement with the idea that urbanisation is itself a key challenge that is intertwined with many of the MDGs. This comes at a time when the economic significance of agglomerations is increasingly recognised, along with the importance of cities in terms of vulnerability of large populations and property to extreme weather events and also cities’ contributions to CO2. Nor do I see the review acting on its proclaimed desire to give more focus to the Commonwealth. By all means evaluate against a set of aims and criteria, but get those aims right.

    • Yes, the DFID move, and the thinking behind it, is saying that slums (and hence the billion slum dwellers) are not a UK priority.

  5. DfiD has been one of the most significant donors to UN-HABITAT in the past has been very active in leveraging reform. Stopping of support is very serious to an organization that does play an important role in terms of advocacy, information and communication concerning urban issues and approaches to tackling them worldwide. There may be some overlap, but there is no other organization that plays the same role.

    There is a long running history of development organizations going hot and cold over support to tackle urban issues, these include World Bank, EC and Netherlands development cooperation. However, the issues remain and grow. Planning and managing urban development well is one of the most important challenges we have.

    Support for rural development is often linked to a strong rural lobby. It is important that organizations such as RTPI fight to promote a more balanced and consistent approach. Focus is fine, but it is myopic to see this as being a choice between either rural or urban development.

  6. I also wonder how the other donors feel about a major supporter jumping ship. Has there been any responses from other donors yet?

    • I’ll keep a look out but it’s very hard to track. DFID gives ODA to IOs that’s not the case in the US–it’s the Treasury that gives to the MDBs but I don’t know who gives to the UN agencies and others. Similarly for France. AfD doesn’t provide funding to IDA; it’s the French Foreign Ministry. Extremely confusing.

      I’m on to this cause it features a a section in my PhD Research.

  7. I fully support you in your comments on UN Habitat and the really puzzling ‘disappearance ‘ of urbanisation policy from DFID.
    I have long appreciated the work of UN –Habitat. The Sustainable Cities Report of 2009 was seminal. If Governments like ours would actually listen to what was being said and do something about it then the influence of UN-Habitat thinking would become real. The key message for me as a planner in Sustainable Cities is that planning should and could be at the heart of meeting the challenge of urbanisation. It’s a no-brainer. And yet….. I watched a debate on urbanisation from ODI the other day. It became obvious from that that the development ‘establishment’ doesn’t get urbanisation yet. Given that the trend to majority urbanisation has been gathering pace over many years I find that astonishing. There seems to be an exclusive focus on rural development which, whilst needed is clearly no longer the key to balanced development. A senior DFID officer complained in the discussion that DFID found it very difficult to come to terms with the municipal level in developing countries. Yet we all know that managing urbanisation is predicated on a strong , skilled and democratic municipal structure. All urban planners know that instinctively and work with it daily. The challenge is enormous across the spectrum- mega cities- declining cities- medium sized dynamic cities. Unless we find a way of installing the fundamental infrastructure and the political systems to manage change then we will be left with vastly more expensive retrofitting or reverting to the clearance mentality of the 80’s. Top down or national planning is simply not enough. We need to bolster the municipal capacity, raise its status and cultivate the skills that in the developed world we have been working on since the 19th century. We don’t have the answers but we have the skills to find them. UN-habitat provides a unique body of knowledge and capacity to enable this to happen. I will call on the Government to reverse this decision and to launch ( or re-launch)an urban initiative. What about starting in Cairo ?

    • Thanks for this well-argued comment. I suspect part of the problem is that central government civil servants living in capital cities have little comprehension of what effective city government might look like, while national politicians are also uncomfortable with the idea of strong local government. Development agencies have urged decentralisation for a decade or more, yet not really built municipal capacity to match. And yes, in all this we must back UN-Habitat, quite simply because it IS the Human Settlements agency. Yes, environment is important; yes, development is important, and so is health, education etc. etc. and yes all these things have a settlements dimension. But agencies dedicated to these sectors do not necessarily see it, and if they do then they have it secondary to their main aims. That’s why we get the kind of lacuna that is evident in the DFID Review.

  8. Having looked at the DFID review there are to my mind some disturbing aspects that make me wonder whether it isn’t simply an exercise in finding token savings.
    The judgement on Habitat seems not to be based on evidence but assertion. The work of UNICEF and UNDP is cited as replacing or replicating what Habitat does but a fairly thorough study of their recent work suggests that neither has a clear and sustained focus on urbanisation. UNICEF in particular does not articulate a vision that recognises the scope for improved urban management. It also slightly ironic that the UN itself asked Unicef to adopt more rigorous ‘outcome measures’ in a recent review, which was one of the DFID criticisms of UN- habitat. UNDP definitely recognises the municipal level but almost fails to mention spatial planning at all . It is in this arena that UN habitat has most to offer. A more rational approach would in any case to have taken a staged approach – possibly using the ‘special measures’ category to give UN habitat some time to react.
    After having ploughed through a lot of what UNDP and Unicef have produced I am more than ever convinced that there is an urgent need for a sea change in the way development and development aid is approached at the urban level that brings spatial planning centre stage.

  9. This biggest glaring error is ranking the IDA as one of the best of the IOs. Yes, the World Bank Group branches are the one who have the greatest reach but they still reek of neoliberalism. UNDP and UN organisations have formed alternative non-WC policies but were ranked lower. Is DFID spell bound by the old development paradigms?

    • Again thanks for these comments, Jiesheng and Neil. For readers less familiar with the acronyms, IDA is International Development Association, which as Jiesheng indicates, is basically an arm of the World Bank that provides concessional finance to many of the poorest countries. UNDP may be more familiar – UN Development Programme. WC here means Washington Concensus – in other contexts “WC” can have a quite different meaning, so best not to mix them up! The Washington Consensus is the belief in neoliberal policies that dominated the prescriptions and conditions of the IMF and the World Bank from the 1980s, and paved the way to the financial crash of 2008. Sorry if all this sounds a bit unnecessary – I spent too long teaching students and old habits die hard.

      While I suspect the WC is alive and well in DFID, we should recognise that the World Bank, for example, has strongly argued for the importance of urban centres as economic drivers. Indeed you can square an urban focus in development with a neoliberal view, if neo-liberal economists can accept that ultimately the economy is somehow connected to place. Thus I come back to my basic point, which is the one that Neil’s comment confirms – the importance of what he calls “a clear and sustained focus on urbanisation”. I am always struck by the contrast in the way urbanisation and climate change are treated. I am not trying to negate or downplay the climate change science, but the effects are long term and hence speculative to a degree. Urbanisation is here and now, very evident in its impacts, beyond the capacity of even the most sceptical to challenge or deny, and how we handle it is already affecting the lives of millions and will have impacts through this generation and the next. However, it commands little attention, and DFID as a major development agency ignores it. Even planners, who perhaps more than any profession should be articulating the narrative of the significance of urbanisation, are relatively mute. At least the blog and the comments have helped air the issues.

  10. Just to provide a perspective from inside a large IFI active in the region, cooperating closely with UN-HABITAT. What UN-HABITAT seems to suffer from is lack of appreciation in donorland a) that innovative approaches are not so easily measured b) much important work is behind closed doors and is not measurable c) the role of facilitator that UN-HABITAT play and the particular challenges that this poses in terms of funding day-to-day operations. The ex-ED may have had her faults, but she had a clear idea of what will ultimately matter to the beneficiary populations and therefore had the ear of her African colleagues, with second-to-none convening power. It is also a fact that there is no serious organisation in development that is not regularly trying to circumvent its own rules and doing so is often the difference between success and failure. Sometimes it really is the rules that are out of touch with complex real-life. The rather trite manner of dismissal of UN-HABITAT shows a lot about the consequences or eroding talent from and thinning down development organisations, leaving both the writing of policies and the evaluations to hired guns and wiping off the hard work on to other stakeholders. The contrast of “Bilateral” vs. “Multilateral” is a drama are often used by people very far from the reality of what is takes to make projects happen, with their own motives. Yes, the DFID review is an irritation, mainly because of the many vague connotations that so easily tarnish reputations. But no, at operational level we would not take internal DFID/UK govt. internal cuisine terribly seriously, but DFIDs laziness is going to cost unwanted extra hours of hassle and explaining.

    • Thanks for these valuable insights. I would hope that RTPI can distill these and the other comments on this blog into a response to the DFID review. As you say “much important work is behind closed doors”, and such avenues need to pursued on this issue. Meanwhile we need to regularly remind people of the mantra of the Commonwealth Association of Planners: “No sustainable development without sustainable urbanisation”.

  11. Oh, the hidden face of UK is so embarrassing. I felt sorry about that. I think they are pursuing a more important issue than what you have said. But the issue is so big that nothing else can cover it.

  12. Apologies for the spam again but here is ISDR’s reply to the MAR (not complete the full pdf is a 4040 entry)


  13. Like Cliff and those who have commented so far, RTPI was taken aback, to put it mildly, that the UK government is ending financial support for UN-HABITAT – the UN agency most committed to sustainable urban development. Cliff is bang on the money: what has happened to the enthusiasm in DfID as recently as March 2010 for recognising that addressing the challenge of urban development is *essential* [their word] if the Millennium Development Goals are to be met? The latest Global Report on Human Settlements (Cities & Climate Change) reinforces that message. We plan to raise this with the DfID minister, and we are seeking support from other NGOs – we know we are not alone.

    • I am encouraged that RTPI is planning to pursue this matter. I suspect the blinkers about urbanisation are not coming from the politicians, though the emphasis on “fragile states” probably is. Indeed one might have expected the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government to have a lot of ideological sympathy with the World Bank type of argument that urban growth is market led and a way of lifting people out of poverty, and therefore efficient management of land use change and urban growth is a necessary part of the equation. Against that, neo-liberals from the US in particular (but by no means exclusively) have scant enthusiasm for the UN, though that did not prevent the DFID review supporting other UN programmes.

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