Published on May 17, 2013

Opening Aid Policy: Wider, Deeper, Longer

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

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This is the third in a series of posts following the launch of an Involve research paper comparing public engagement in policy involving science and technology to public engagement in aid policy. It suggests a highly public and visible way in which DFID could involve the public. The final post in the series explores the linkage between public engagement and aid effectiveness.

In my second post  I drew on examples from science and technology to give some concrete examples of how DFID might open up to the public voice. In this post I want to push these thoughts to the limits.

I am under no illusions that the process I propose below brings with it enormous risks for DFID, which is operating in a highly charged political environment, made more difficult by the ring fencing of its budget at a time when spending in the UK is falling drastically. However, I do think that there are elements of what I suggest below which could be picked-up and used with significant short to medium term benefits to the department.

A much more visible, deeper form of engagement than those outlined previously could see the public helping to decide which aid projects receive funding. This is the sort of suggestion that sends shivers down the spines of aid professionals who are concerned that the public doesn’t have enough knowledge to make effective decisions.

However, it was exactly this idea that David Cameron proposed prior to the election. MyAid would have seen the public voting on which aid projects should be funded from a £40m pot. In response to the concerns people were raising about the risks of asking the public to vote in a development beauty parade, I developed a thought experiment about how the public could be involved more effectively in deciding aid spending. While some of the steps are optional, my idea went something like this (drawing heavily and freely on an earlier post):

Step 1: Define the terms. DFID would first need to define the very broad terms under which the funding could be spent – are there geographic or programmatic areas within which it must be spend, or indeed cannot be spent? Placing clear boundaries about the extent to which the public will have an influence is critical; what might be implicitly understood by government may well not be by the public taking part. Involving key stakeholders in this framing will also be important. This step is basic good practice in public engagement, but is all too often forgotten, or rushed.

Step 2: Convene the public. DFID would then convene a small representative sample of the public. A group of one to two hundred people would be ideal. This group would meet over the course of two to three day-long sessions. In the first half of the process they would meet with experts (including aid sceptics), perhaps people with direct experience of living in poverty, to develop a deeper understanding of the relevant issues. Lots of time would be provided for them to deliberate with the experts and their peers. The second half of the process would see them developing a clear set of principles by which the pot of money must be spent.

This group could be convened very publicly, through a very visible sortation process or in a much more low key way.

Step 3: Collecting the project ideas. The principles developed would then be used to design the call for project proposals and what the criteria for making a final decision about winning projects would be. Citizens and development NGOs could submit projects (or DFID could identify them internally), but would have to explain how the project fitted the criteria developed in the first part of the process. A pre-screening by experts using these criteria before the voting opened would help to remove any projects which are anti-developmental or have been used to try to subvert the process.

Step 4: Crowdsourcing the project ranking (optional). Once nominations have closed, citizens could then be invited to vote on the projects submitted. An open ranking of all projects may well lead to a beauty parade, but there are other ways of designing online voting to ensure that the organisation with the most motivated membership base doesn’t swing the vote.

Step 5: Allocating the money. A panel of development experts would then be invited to look at the ranking and, using the public’s criteria, make the final choices. In the process I have outlined, the public helps to identify the most promising projects, but only those with expertise make the final choice. As long as this is clear at the start and carried out transparently the process will maintain its legitimacy. Indeed, I highlighted in this paper that the public often welcome the opportunity to have their voices heard, but make it clear that experts should make the final decision.

The public therefore plays two roles. A small group is invited to become better informed and help to develop the process, and critically the criteria by which projects are chosen. En mass the public is then invited to rank the projects thus saving time and money for the government – an excellent use of crowdsourcing.

Step 6: Holding the experts to account. This need not be a one-off opening up by DFID. Indeed, (I think) the beauty of the process is that it has the potential to build in mutual learning for both the public and DFID.

In the first step of the establishment of an accountability loop, DFID would bring the initial group back at the end of the process. They would interrogate the experts who made the final choice about which projects to fund; how did they make the choice? How were the publicly designed selection criteria applied? This process would be carried out transparently and openly, possibly webcast.

Subsequent steps could see this group of the public, refreshed and revitalised by new members, being involved in the evaluation of the projects which receive funding. They could then use this learning to revise and improve the project selection criteria. In the process, the public will learn more about the complexity of the aid and development chain, and DFID will learn more about public perspectives on aid, development and the spending of public money in complex and challenging situations. This could lead to a more nuanced accountability system which specifically addresses the trade-offs and ethical dilemmas inherent when supporting development. In turn this could help to enable more focussed and balanced accountability processes.

The more public the overall process, the larger its potential impact on the public debate.

Ultimately, given enough time and commitment by DFID to meaningful engagement, such processes like the one above and those I outlined in my previous post would, I believe, lead to greater stability and more focussed and appropriate accountability systems for aid delivery. The impact of this would be more effective support for development in some of the poorest countries in the world

As I said at the end of my first post in this series: if DFID wants the trust of the British public, it will need to demonstrate it has trust in the public too. It will need to listen to their concerns and aspirations for the future of international aid and development as it makes its plans for the future.

Both the summary and full versions of this paper are now available.

The full report: Resetting the Aid Relationship (PDF document) (PDF document)

The summary: Resetting the Aid Relationship Summary (PDF document) (PDF document)

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