The UK Department for International Development published its latest White Paper this week setting out its strategy for the next few years. Given DFID's reputation and clout throughout the international development system, it is likely to prove highly influential beyond a simple UK government department.
I should declare an interest from the outset. The programme I run at the BBC World Service Trust, the Policy and Research Programme on Media and Communication in Development, is funded by DFID. You'll have to (or not) take on trust that my comments reflect my own perspective, rather than any effort to please those who substantively fund this work.
The fact is that it's a gutsy document. It outlines a strategy that sees DFID working most where development gains are toughest to achieve and least amenable to clear impact evaluation. It argues that it is politics rather than simply development money that will determine success or failure in fragile and conflict affected states. In particular, it commits itself to a set of strategies that are informed and shaped by the political economy of the countries in which DFID works.
It has, in other words, set itself on a path to do the difficult rather than the easy and to work in a way which most development agencies - which are more used to spending money in pursuit of technical targets - have traditionally found challenging. It has done so moreover at a time of global economic crisis when it may have been easier and simpler to lay low and trumpet the easier wins of how many anitmalarial bednets DFID will fund (it does this too....10 million over three years is the answer). The fact that parties across the political spectrum in the UK have committed themselves to defending the aid budget from cuts when virtually all other departments will suffer them is a real testimony to how far the development debate has come in the UK over the last decade.
In choosing this path, it has signalled a policy that sees international development strategy seriously beginning to address the root causes of failed development in fragile states. There are articulate critics of development aid who have some strong arguments, but the development system has over recent years - particularly through the development of the Accra Agenda for Action - taken really serious measures to address its weaknesses and maximise its collective effectiveness. The forensic focus that this White Paper places on understanding and recognising the power realities of fragile states is another serious signal that the huge and unwieldy beast that is the international aid system is adaptive and unafraid of the difficult.
In some respects, this focus on the political dimension of development is simply an intensification of existing policy. The last DFID White Paper published just three years ago in 2006, was entitled "Making Governance work for the Poor", and Hilary Benn, the then development minister, frequently paraphrased this to mean "making politics work for the poor".
This White Paper, produced under the current development minister, Douglas Alexander, goes further, setting out concrete strategies for how DFID will place a new focus on the political dimension of development. Media is explicitly highlighted as part of one of the core strategies for ensuring that the increased funding that DFID is providing through governments is held to account by citizens. The current strategy of budget support (which curiously gets very little mention given that it makes up the bulk of DFID expenditure) will be tailored to ensure that 5% of all such funds will be set aside to "strengthen mechanisms for making states more accountable to their citizens. This will ensure that citizens groups, local media, parliaments, audit bodies and others are able to monitor how governments use these resources".
Funding will be doubled to civil society organisations and a new fund will be set up for smaller scale NGOs, faith based organisations and others who have struggled in recent years as DFID has spent money in ever larger chunks. The paper also focuses heavily on the challenges of climate change and on other issues, such as economic growth and the reform of international institutions.
The focus on local media as a key element of accountability will come as welcome recognition among those working in media development. The main reason why media development organisations have placed such an emphasis over the years on the political realities that determine political outcomes is that we act at the interface of politics, development and citizens.
Our work is to support media that can inform citizens on issues that affect their lives so that they can take control of them; that can investigate and provide a dispassionate check on those who exercise power; that can provide a platform for independent public debate that is often muscular, bitter and fought out in the political domain. At its best, media works on behalf of citizens and helps them navigate their way through the political maze and constitutes a giant pillar supporting the public interest. When media works, media does not undermine state stability, it guarantees it by providing legitimate outlets for unheard, often angry voices. It can help forge national identities and underpin lasting political settlements through a process of peaceful - if often very difficult - public debate and dialogue rather than civil war.
At its worst, when media becomes appropriated by narrow political, religious, ethnic or other powerful interests, it becomes one of the most powerful agents of that power. At its very worst, this can lead to hate and catastrophe. This is the case in all countries, but the potential good and potential harm that media can wreak are accentuated many times over in fractured, conflicted and fragile states.
Many media development actors have argued for years that treating development as a largely technical process that can be implemented with disregard to the political and power realities of countries is a key reason for a lack of lasting success of development efforts. The DFID White Paper is a seriously refreshing antidote to this.
I suspect that not all those working within the media and communication sector will be quite as enthusiastic. Most media and communication actors see development as a process that is fundamentally shaped and driven by the citizenry of countries, rather than by government. The central message from this White Paper is that states - especially fragile states - that are not capable cannot deliver for their citizens. Media, civil society and other non state actors are considered almost entirely in their capacity to make the state more effective and responsive, rather than as the spaces and places where the energy, vision and emerging identities of fragile countries are shaped and determined. That, however, is another story and another blog.
When large development actors choose the rocky road over the smooth one, and when they argue their case as effectively as this, they deserve applause. The White Paper has been largely welcomed by politicians across party divides in the UK and that will improve the chances of it actually achieving its aims. That's just as well. It took guts to choose this road but it will take more to implement it (including, it must be said, in the face of an often sceptical media in the UK).