Published on April 17, 2013

Resetting the Aid Relationship

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.

Coins Image for Aid articleThe aid and development sector has been a pioneer within the engagement field, developing practical and innovative methodologies such as Participatory Appraisal as well as embedding concepts such as ownership through participation as part of mainstream policy.  The focus of such activity has been in developing countries themselves.

Beyond one way communication with UK taxpayers, the Department for International Development (DFID) has made limited attempts to engage citizens in deliberation about the trade-offs inherent within the aid world. This is in stark contrast to developments within science and technology, where significant thought and effort has gone into finding ways to open up policy making to citizen voices, hopes and aspirations.

This approach is coming under increasing criticism; see for example recent publications by ActionAid UK and the Overseas Development Institute. The government has placed its emphasis on the ‘Results Agenda’ in order to ensure value for money in international aid. The Results Agenda requires DFID to report against a series of easily measurable outcome indicators, such as ‘the number of people with access to financial services as a result of DFID support’. The focus on positive stories and on ‘simple’ outcomes obscures the ethical trade-offs and practical complexities involved in delivering international aid. It potentially reduces the scope for public debate and deliberation about the choices that DFID is making.

Taking this as the starting point, we are currently finalising a research project to explore what lessons DFID and other development actors can learn from the progress made to engage the public in policies involving science and technology.

Lessons from science and technology suggest that greater public engagement in international aid will allow policy makers to better reflect the values and principles of the British public. This in turn will lead to more stable and sustainable aid commitments that are less vulnerable to crises in confidence developing out of the latest corruption scandal, for example.

In addition, our research suggests that deeper public engagement in international aid policy will allow the policy makers to develop more focussed and less costly accountability processes. In the end, better public engagement in international aid will enhance democratic control and ensure decisions more meaningfully reflect the public’s perspective in UK’s aid spending.

We will be launching the research paper at the Overseas Development Institute on the 17th May. If you would like to attend the launch, you can register here, or to receive a copy of the paper please contact Saskia Enthoven (

This article was originally featured in our newsletter.

Image by J D Mack

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