What next for the Wales for Africa Programme?

By Eleanor Fisher, who is Associate Professor of International Development at the University of Reading (previously at the Centre for Development Studies, University of Swansea)

In 2006 Welsh Government launched the Wales for Africa and International Development Programme.  Over the last 8 years, ‘Wales for Africa’ has grown, linked to 700 organisations/groups and 5,000 volunteers.

In September 2014 the Welsh Government will be asking for proposals to manage the Wales for Africa Programme beyond March 2015.  It is timely to ask what direction the Programme should take:  More of the same?  Minor adjustment?   Radical redirection?   With a small budget and the need to demonstrate value for public money, plus a rapidly changing international development context, ‘more of the same’ may not be an option.  But are Welsh Government and people willing to embrace change?

Wales: An Outward Facing Nation

Devolution means that responsibility for the interests of Wales is divided between the UK Government and the Welsh Government.  Many areas of government are devolved; however international development remains a reserved matter under the central Department for International Development (DFID).  Nevertheless, like its counterparts in Scotland and Northern Ireland, Welsh Government has sought to develop distinctive international policies reflecting notions of self-autonomy and nationhood.

The Welsh international development agenda harnesses a tradition of internationalism: political discourse refers to an ‘outward facing nation’ while emphasising contemporary relevance to the UN Millennium Development Goals.   Stress is placed on mutuality and relationship-based development, with Welsh Government facilitating civil society groups in Wales and Africa.  In reality there are also many non-African international connections but Africa provides a focus.  Mutuality is at the heart of Welsh international development actions by necessity: under the legal framework governing devolution, Welsh Government can only support work in Africa if benefits are realised for the people of Wales.  Close alignment with civil society permits Welsh Government to harness legitimacy for international development.

Over the course of 8 years, government-civil society linkages have developed ad hoc, shaped by personal connections in a country as small as Wales. Today linkages are consolidated across 6 distinct networks: Fair Trade Wales (www.fairtradewales.com); Wales Africa Community Links (www.walesafrica.org); Wales Africa Health Links (www.wales.nhs.uk/sites3/home.cfm?orgid=834); International Learning Opportunities (www.academiwales.org.uk); Sub-Sahara Advisory Panel (www.ssap.org.uk) and the Wales International Development Hub (www.hubcymru.org.uk).

Examples of links can be found in the following reports:

2013 Wales Africa Community Links Impact Report

2013-2014 Wales Africa Health Links Annual Report 

Wales for Africa: Relationship-based working

Strengths of the Wales for Africa Programme include people’s enthusiasm, strong cross-continental personal relations, significant time and energy devoted to voluntary activity, and the tenacity needed to forge projects in difficult African institutional environments.  These qualities should not be underestimated and are a credit to the people of Wales.  Given the constraints of partial devolution, Welsh Government can also be congratulated for its commitment to international development.

However weaknesses are also apparent.  At worst initiatives become parochial and patronising, echoing a charitable ethos long-outdated in international development circles.  Examination of these issues by Swansea University and Wales-Africa Community Links in 2011 highlighted many examples of good practice, but weak understanding of poverty and inequality is also pervasive (including about the ‘elite capture’ of development resources in African communities), poverty targeting in African communities is negligible, monitoring and evaluation of impact is limited, and there is a reluctance to let African partners ‘hold the reigns’.  Limitations are reinforced by the tendency of many within the Welsh international development community to want to do things their own way, autonomous from wider thinking and practice, carrying the danger of limiting learning on best (and worst) practice.

International development strategy in the context of Welsh devolution

Not all criticism rests with civil society.  For a stranger to Welsh Government strategy on international development, a puzzling feature is the very absence of strategy and goals: Where do priorities lie? What precisely are Welsh development initiatives intending to achieve?  How, where and for whom can a difference realistically be made?     The Wales for Africa Programme operates with a miniscule budget and yet its activities are spread wide without self-evident rationale – across fair trade, international learning, and multiple health and community links, etc.  Only through an understanding of the devolution context and awareness of the politics at play does a rationale emerge. It is a governance context that has enabled specific interest groups to thrive.

Striking also is the lack of co-ordination between either Welsh Government & DFID or between the devolved regions.  Reluctance by Welsh Government to engage with UK central government and vice versa is understandable given the questionable regional legitimacy for international development.  Less clear is a lack of regional inter-connection: Scotland is active in international development through the Scottish Malawi Development Programme; Northern Ireland is a late player to the field but its ambition is growing.  The potential to enhance the value of Scottish and Welsh development activities in Africa through a co-ordinated approach and limitations of poor collaboration were highlighted in a report by Chatham House in 2011 (https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/public/Research/Africa/0311anyimadu.pdf).

International development in transition

An 2014 article by Harman and Williams describes how the project of international development is in a period of transition, involving fundamental change in how development is understood, in the role of foreign aid, and in relationships between development donors and recipient states (www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_publication_docs/90_4_HarmanWilliams.pdf).  They identify a re-emphasis on the role of the state in development away from market-based approaches; a return to ‘big’ development (e.g. infrastructure projects) away from ‘small’ development (e.g. the MDGs); an era of choice for aid recipient states based on pluralism and autonomy; and, a shift in the relationship between traditional development agencies and aid recipients that reinforces autonomy.

The grand project of international development may seem far removed from the scale and scope of Wales for Africa, however it would be naïve to ignore.  Two features stand out: Firstly, a return to ‘big’ development may stimulate opportunities for community-based projects by non-traditional donors (e.g. Welsh Government) because community need remains.  Secondly, emphasis on autonomy underlines how southern partners must ‘hold the reigns’, with northern partners occupying a supportive, non-directing role.  Southern organisations are best placed to take into account the local power and socio-economic dynamics that facilitate or hinder realisation of development outcomes; northern organisations a well-placed to stimulate development awareness ‘at home’.

Future directions?

What direction for the Wales for Africa Programme from 2015?  More of the same?  Minor adjustment?   Radical redirection?   If the past maps the future, the direction will be driven by regional politics and the dynamics of government-civil society relations, shaped by the personalities and networks of influence that constitute the Welsh international development scene.   If this is at the expense of hard critical reflection it would be unfortunate.  Welsh strategy on international development needs to identify clear priorities and goals, taking into account where and for whom impact can best be realised by such a small programme.  Within this strategy southern partners need to take the lead in development initiatives (recognising that benefits for the people of Wales must be realised).  In funding terms this means hard choices need to be made by the Wales for Africa Programme; inevitably a strategic development programme will generate winners and losers because only high capacity Welsh organisations and strong independent southern organisations can occupy these roles.

Eleanor Fisher is Associate Professor of International Development at the University of Reading (www.reading.ac.uk/apd/staff/e-fisher.aspx).  She is author of over 30 articles including ‘The “Fair Trade Nation”: Market-Oriented Development in Devolved European Regions’ (Human Organisation, 2012, 71(3): 255).


10 thoughts on “What next for the Wales for Africa Programme?

  1. A refreshing look at the Welsh Government ‘development’ programme. Will they embrace the change that Dr Fisher suggests? If they don’t, the programme will loose its credibility

  2. What has been said by Dr Fisher should have been discussed years ago. The Welsh Government needs to decide if it is about providing the means through which Wales can play its part in combating African poverty. Much of Wales Africa, as stated above, is based on developing a charitable and even patronising approach to this issue. Is this really the political aim of the Welsh Government?

    The fundamental principle of mutuality assumes that both parties can give and receive. It is clear that African poverty dictates the power balance of the relationship. However, a pillar of liberation is that, despite my relative poverty, I can give positively to my supporter. This means mutual benefit to Wales needs to go beyond the furthering of Welsh professional development and look for ways in which Africa can teach us. Bringing ideas back from Africa which may help Wales doesn’t seem high on many people’s agendas, despite the underlying theme of mutuality. Are we in danger of collaborating with an ethos which results in the poor getting poorer whilst the rich get richer?

  3. A really interesting and insightful contribution from Dr Fisher. The chance to shake things up doesn’t come around often, so this seems like a great opportunity. There is good work being done within the Wales for Africa programme but from what I have seen it’s greatest strength is actually it’s potential. So maybe that could also be it’s greatest weakness, as it is not being fulfilled.

    There seems to be real resistance to learning within the sector and even cynicism about a professional approach. It is hard to think of another sector where learning, academic understanding and an approach based on this experience would be so thoroughly disregarded.

    Development work based on good intentions and an’ idea’ of what will help is no longer acceptable. As Paul has said above, an approach based on this paternalism is not simply unacceptable but is also extremely harmful.

  4. I am also pleased to see what is indeed a long overdue discussion. My biggest gripe with WACL is their lack of scrutiny when it comes to the voluntary organisations that they work with. In fact, WACL are faciliating a system in which “anybody can do international development”, regardless of their skills, experience and understanding of poverty. I wonder what proportion of the 700+ linked organisations are running projects which genuinely benefit communities?

    I think it’s important that WACL takes a more stringent approach in the future, actively discouraging those traditional practices which do more harm than good.
    Personally, I would prefer to see WACL focusing on a smaller selection of organisations which do not adhere to the outdated paternal approach, rather than working with numerous inherently weak and ineffective groups.

    1. Hi there Tom, WACL here! I understand the concern behind your comment, but just wanted to respond with an explanation. WACL don’t deal with the whole sector of 700+, just a small part (approx 100) – and we are a volunteering support network, not an international development NGO.

      Our support work (and grant scheme) is designed around an in depth Effectiveness Framework (based on best practice principles linked to BOND and NIDOS – http://www.walesafrica.org/Effectiveness_Framework.html), that actively aims to discourage traditional / charitable practices and facilitate organisations to learn, involve volunteers with a wider range of skills, and develop partnerships based on equity and building capacity. The organisations we work with are going through this learning journey at a range of levels (remember, the Oxfams of the world started as local famine relief committees), so ‘moving past paternalism’ is usually one of those fundamental lessons. Those organisations who cannot do so, rarely progress.

      Small organisations and citizen initiatives exist Europe-wide, whether governments or the professional International Development community recognise them or not (see http://hiva.kuleuven.be/en/publicaties/publicatie_detail.php?id=3565). Without support to think through projects, there is far greater scope for doing harm and reinforcing – so the WACL programme (which with 2.5 staff is tiny in resourcing compared to the INGO community!) seeks to balance this.

      I’m currently preparing a blog piece to go alongside Ele’s, the key focus of which will be that, as Eleri points out in her comment below, Wales for Africa is about international volunteering and global citizenship (with some international cooperation benefits). Watch this space 🙂

  5. An excellent blog on the issues,opportunities and challenges facing Wales Africa Programme.

    There is great potential in the programme and I strongly believe Wales has a unique opportunity to create a programme built on sustainable partnerships with Africa.

    However the programme will need adequate resourcing to overcome the weaknesses highlighted including clearly identified goals/performance indicators for the links. there is energy and vibrancy within the sector in Wales , the energy needs to be harnessed in a more effective manner. more focus on working in partnership with southern partners, more focus on shared learning and exchange of experience between Wales and Africa.

  6. Like other readers, I feel that the opportunity to re-frame the Wales for Africa Programme should not be taken lightly. It provides an excellent and rare chance to evaluate the programme thus far, and make changes which could have a far more positive global impact.

    The programme, in its current format cannot be seen as ‘development’. Perhaps on a good day I would concede the programme includes elements of (international) community and organisational/ institutional development. However this does not constitute international development, instead it should be seen for what it is; international volunteering.

    I for one would like to see several changes in any new programme. Firstly, a different name- I’ve had many discussions with individuals within the sector and not one of them appears to like the ‘Wales for Africa’ programme title. As Dr Fisher notes, much of the work of the sector takes place in other regions, making the programme name not only patronising, but also a misnomer to those unfamiliar with the sector (whom are often lobbied to raise awareness, or gain support).

    I would also like to see a transition from the outmoded “parochial and patronising” charity ethos with which the sector is seemingly consumed to a rights-based approach. Ideally this approach would focus on strong partnerships with organisations in the global south including marginalised individuals be they women, persons with disabilities, LGBT individuals as well as other marginalised groups.

    Finally, although I understand the need to demonstrate a benefit to Wales arising from devolution, this benefit has to go further than altruism and a brief spell of international volunteering, surely?

  7. A really refreshing and brave article by Prof Fisher illustrating the need to restructure the approach of our semi autonomous government to international develop. Wales has such wealth of resources in terms of institutions, skills and links yet from personal experience, I know it can be difficult to get government to engage in a strategic manner or promote engagement by such institutions. Perhaps this is about a lack of resources, perhaps it is about vision and key stakeholders not understanding that “benefits” to Wales may not be a creditable, definable product in 12 months of a small grant. I hear the response ” why should we fund it then?” Therein lies the crux of the issue. Once you know what you want to achieve, you are in a position to apply resources through a strategy to move towards that goal .

    I think WG could do more to mobilise a range of institutions in Wales to engage with the development sector and build on existing strengths to deliver on a strategy. An outward facing approach could provide economic opportunities as well as altruistic benefits for Wales and more importantly could support a positive development impact for some of the world’s poorest people. Sazani Associates works with 4 universities in Wales on a variety of discreet issues; developing new carbon baseline methodologies for mangroves for example. If you compare that with our partnerships with Bristol and Exeter University you see a marked difference. Our English University partnerships have external academic and non academic partners working collaboratively looking at securing funding to undertake development issues ranging from anti radicalisation and security to Payment for Ecosystem Services and livelihoods. As a not for profit with expertise, links, capabilities crossing practical and academic boundaries we are seen as a development partner supporting access to external resources for applied research. We see a more outward looking vision and one which the institutions invest in. One of the aspects of our Bristol work is a partnership of small states universities and entities; http://www.sids2014.org/index.phppage=view&type=1006&nr=2705&menu=1507
    We had someone representing us at the UN Conference on Small Island Developing States.

    WG could draw on longstanding private sector, third sector and community links with Africa to deliver innovative development solutions with local partners. Sazani has been linking and exchanging teachers between Zanzibar and South Wales for 14 years developing innovative curricula products.We won a Council of Europe laureate for EU funded work on education and food sovereignty – again linking Wales and 18 partners worldwide and yet WG have not engaged us in supporting our on going educational programmes. What hope for new partners with innovative approaches ?

  8. It is often stated that Wales is punching above its weight on the international development agenda and doing a lot of good work. The blog outlines Welsh Governments commitment to the international development programme, and as highlighted, collaborative working is a fundamental part of this work, although it fails to mention the Welsh Government funded International Health Coordination Centre (IHCC). The IHCC was established in response to the Welsh Government Framework ‘Health Within and Beyond Welsh Borders’ to serve the whole of the NHS in Wales and is not limited to specific geographical locations.

    Concerns with the current Wales for Africa Health Links grants, which is part funded by the Wales for Africa programme and the Health Improvement Division surround the apparent lack of monitoring and evaluation that supports the grant process, and the limitation grants have to sub-Saharan Africa, when there is potential with the new framework to broaden health’s impact on a wider scale.

    Looking at the WFA programme from a Public Health perspective, it is difficult to see how the Community Links and Health Links differ in real terms, livelihoods, environment, equality all tie into the social determinants of health – conditions which people are born, grow, live, work and age in, encompassing the social and environmental implications on health.


    Through its work, the IHCC has developed a Charter for International Health Partnerships, which is a recognition of the need for a more coherent and consistent approach to international partnerships, conforming to and complimenting Welsh aspirations, principles and ethics.

    The Charter hopes to strengthen the commitment of Welsh stakeholders to evidence-based practice, shared learning and international partnerships based on equality and the pursuit of mutual, tangible benefits.

    There has been an extensive process which involved two rounds of consultation and has included input from Public Health Wales, Welsh Government, the Health Boards and Trusts across Wales and other stakeholders such as 3rd sector organisations. The Charter will be launched on the 26th November by the Health Minister at the Hadyn Ellis building.

    As mentioned in the Grant Outline, Wales has a fifth of all UK hospital to hospital links with sub-Saharan Africa. By strengthening these, links, and working with the Wales for Africa programme to deliver a coordinated effort, duplication and consistency can be optimised in Wales’ effort to address the MDGs and to tackle the upcoming SDG agenda. Potential learning from other nations should not be underestimated.

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