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:
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’.
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).