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The Biggest NGO in Government By David Levesque

By David Levesque, Independent Education Consultant.

illusionSo said the British Prime Minister Tony Blair in his autobiography, of Clare Short’s Department for International Development in the early 2000s.   Whether irony or whimsical musing, it reflected a shift in the balance of how UK government aid had previously been perceived and challenged the zeitgeist on where the balance lay between national self-interest and global humanitarian compassion.

Leaving aside possible assumptions about the nature and role of NGOs, it is interesting to highlight some of the actions and policies that might have supported this conclusion.

Underpinning the changes was the decision to create a separate government department, with cabinet status, independent of the Foreign Office.  This enabled programmes to be developed outside of British foreign policy priorities. The subsequent 2002 International Development Act enshrined poverty reduction as the focus of British development assistance.

The consequences included untying aid delivery so that it was no longer linked to British goods and services, refusing to badge UK aid so that it was seen as a global rather than a national good, giving priority to poverty reduction through every programme and project and refusing requests from other government departments for the use of aid money.  It undoubtedly helped that both the then UK Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer were supportive of development assistance, epitomised by the strong support given to the ‘make poverty history’ campaign at the 2005 Gleneagles G8 summit.

The balance began to change progressively throughout the first decade of the 21st century as Britain became involved in conflicts.  First in Sierra Leone and later in Iraqi and Afghanistan, development became part of the response to rebuilding societies. This required greater collaboration across government departments leading to the formation of a ‘3D’ partnership between development, diplomacy and defence.

The change of government in the UK in 2010 led to further modification.  An increasing aid budget and a branding of UKaid, led to calls for stronger accountability.  More money was allocated to justifying the aid budget, requiring a focus on value for money, attribution, target setting, measurement, research evidence for business plans, results based allocations and the establishment of an independent watchdog. A strengthening focus on conflict prevention required further cross government collaboration and a focus on good government as a prerequisite for poverty reduction.

If we look globally across the world of official government development assistance in 2015 it is possible to see many of the same issues.  The prevailing paradigm is towards the national self-interest end of the spectrum with the promotion of branded, tied aid, an emphasis on promoting national culture and language through partnership and scholarships and the need to finance national accountability concerns.

Some governments claim that these different perspectives are not antithetical.  It is in the national self-interest to give humanitarian assistance across the globe as this encourages peace and security.

Priorities change over time as different governments come and go but aid finance is a precious, scarce resource that deserves to be used with maximum effect for the world’s poorest people. Finding the appropriate balance between support for humanitarian objectives and national self-interest requires on-going vigilance.

The Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore provided an appropriate metaphorical caution, ‘I’ve spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument, while the song I came to sing remains unsung.’

Perhaps there is sometimes a case for government development departments looking more like NGOs.


Blair, T. 2010. A Journey.  London: Random House.


David Levesque is an independent education consultant who previously worked for DFID as a senior education adviser. Email:

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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1 Response

  1. David Levesque knows better than most the shifts and turns of UK aid, and while the blog is diplomatic and restrained in tone, it points to the way UK aid, amongst others, is being pushed and pulled by the twin challenges of the global financial crisis and the global security crisis (ISIS, al Qaida etc). When aid is primarily used to protect ‘our security’ and ‘our economy’ it is highly unlikley to do any good for the poorest people and communities in the world, undermines the UK’s development credibility and discredits the field. Its a pendulum that needs to swing back the other way, but with the CON DEM government that is nigh on impossible.

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