The Limits of Transparency: DFID’s Annual Reviews

This is the first blog in a series which will examine DFID’s Annual Reviews, exploring what they say, what they mean, and how they could be improved. 

The aid world is full of contradictions. Think about the last time you worked overnight to produce a report that nobody will ever read. Think about facipulation. Think about the Sachs vs Easterly soap opera. But for sheer, brazen ridiculousness, few things beat DFID’s Annual Review scoring.

DFID should be applauded for scoring Annual Reviews, and publishing all Annual Reviews online. It’s transparent, honest, and allows others to hold both DFID and implementing agencies to account. Quite refreshingly unexpected for an aid bureaucracy otherwise devoted to self-preservation. So at some point in DFID’s internal decision-making, the aid bureaucracy pushed back. You can imagine the conversation within DFID:

Person A: We want to objectively review all our programmes, score them, and publish the scores online!

Person B: But…then people will find out that our programmes aren’t working!

Person A: Good point, I didn’t think of that. *Long pause* I know. How about we only award positive scores?

And that’s what DFID did. Programmes are ranked on a five point scale from ‘A++’, through ‘A+’, ‘A’, ‘B’ and to ‘C’. Programmes which are meeting expectations – just about doing enough to get by – will score an ‘A’ grade. Call me slow, but I thought an ‘A’ was a mark of success, not a recognition of mediocrity.

Programme which underperform will be scored as ‘B’, and must be put on an improvement plan if they score two ‘B’s in a row. Again, possibly I under-performed at school, but I was always quite happy to get consecutive B’s for my homework. A programme which is truly diabolical, and in severe danger of being shut down, would receive a ‘C’. Programmes cannot receive a ‘D’, ‘E’, ‘F’, ‘G’, or ‘U’, unlike the normal English exam system.

dfids scoring system (2).jpgJust to prove I’m not making things up.

DFID thus suffers a kind of technocratic schizophrenia. It possesses the most transparent and open assessment mechanism in the world – and a scoring system designed to prevent any appearance of failure.

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World Humanitarian Summit Report: What is it? What does it say? What happens next?

Final_WHS_LogoFollowing 2.5 years of consultation and discussion, today the UN Secretary General’s report about how the humanitarian sector needs to improve has been published. ‘One Humanity: Shared Responsibility’ outlines 5 areas of core responsibility that need Ban Ki-Moon (UN Secretary General) believes should be focused on at the World Humanitarian Summit due to take place in Istanbul 23-24 May.

The 5 core responsibilities are:

1. Political leadership to prevent and end conflicts

Humanitarianism can’t resolve many manmade problems without political input. The report calls for coordinated, compassionate and courageous decisions by political leaders to analyse and monitor risk; act on early warning signals; work together to find solutions in a timely manner; accept that with sovereignty comes responsibility to protect citizens. There is a clear emphasis on human rights violations. Political unity is required for prevention, not just management of crises. The UN Security Council needs to put its divisions aside and actively engage in conflict prevention. More evidence and visibility is needed of successful conflict prevention to help mobilise resources (funds and people) for it in the future. There needs to be more sustained investment in promoting peaceful and inclusive societies.

2. Uphold the norms that safeguard humanity

Re-affirm the humanitarian principles. Despite all the legal frameworks and agreements in place, the world is still ridden with ‘the brazen and brutal erosion of respect for international human rights and humanitarian law’. The type of wars that we now see have left civilians and aid workers in severe danger of kidnapping, injury or death. We need to reassert the demand for respect for agreed shared norms, enforce laws and support monitoring mechanisms to tackle the erosion of rule of law. The Secretary General asks all members states to recommit to the rules and calls for a global campaign to affirm the norms that safeguard humanity. Start by ensuring full access and protection for humanitarian missions. Those not already signed up to core statutes and conventions of international humanitarian and human rights laws, are invited to accede at the Summit. Those already signed up are asked to actively promote and monitor compliance.

3. Leave no one behind

The humanitarian imperative includes the idea that aid shall be given based on need and that everyone’s need should be required regardless of race, religion, nationality etc. The 2030 Agenda has reiterated the need to focus on those at the very bottom and those in the worst situations, not allowing issues of access to be an excuse for not helping those in need. The stateless, displaced and excluded are highlighted, particularly children, though all those deprived or disadvantaged are noted. A new target for the reduction of new and protracted internal displacement by 2030 is called for. Specific changes are listed for the national, international and regional levels (see page 24). Finally it calls for a shared responsibility in addressing large movements of refugees; a commitment to ‘end statelessness in the next decade’; and the empowerment of women and girls.

4. Change people’s lives – from delivering aid to ending need

We need to invest in local systems and stop being obsessed with the humanitarian development divide. Despite the SDGs and the new era of cooperation for development that they represent, ‘conflict and fragility remain the biggest threats to human development’. The focus needs to be on reducing vulnerability rather than just providing short term relief. To do this we need to set aside the ‘humanitarian-development division’, and focus on the assets and capabilities available at all levels and across all sectors. This section calls for collaboration based on complementarity drawing on our collective advantage. The WorldVision statement from the Global Consultation has been used to summarise the new paradigm approach ‘as local as possible, as international as necessary’. People’s dignity and desire to be resilient should be harnessed to reduce the dependency on foreign assistance.

5. Invest in humanity.

The real humanitarians are those who live in countries vulnerable to disasters and so we should be helping them to be better prepared for emergencies.

Local capacity needs to be strengthened in order for funds to be shared directly to national authorities and local NGOs. Funding is currently under representative for national/local NGOs (0.2% in 2014) and for disaster preparedness and prevention (0.4% of ODA in 2014). Areas of greatest risk do not receive the necessary funds. The current financing structure is inadequate, inflexible and ineffective. As local actors are best placed to understand need and develop relevant solutions, their capacities should be increased so that they can receive more resources and accept more responsibility for both preparedness and response. New platforms and mechanisms, as listed in the High Level Panel’s report on Humanitarian Financing, will be introduced by the UN and others are encouraged to set similar targets.

Three key points:

Much of the report includes issues traditionally considered non-humanitarian such as access to justice or economic empowerment programmes for women. From a humanitarian system perspective there were three interesting acknowledgements:

  • The ‘inequity in the aid system’ plus the ‘out-dated’ and ‘fragmented’ international aid architecture are not admitted but it is noted that many have expressed their ‘outrage and frustration’.
  • Then the ‘pride’ of local actors is acknowledged. Highlighting where hope does exist, for instance when women and the young are ‘empowered’ to act. Isn’t it shocking how creative people can be with their solutions when given the space!
  • The good news is that the determination to keep going and fight for change is growing at the local level. Increasingly the formal international aid system is being left behind. Individuals and groups from the ‘global south’ are increasingly organising themselves and their communities – or perhaps they’ve been doing it for decades and we are only now recognising it because of processes like the WHS?

And now?

The report calls for us to stop taking the easiest route and acknowledges that humanitarian assistance and/or peacekeepers alone is not sufficient. Global leaders are called upon to attend the Summit ready to ‘assume their responsibilities for a new era’. Section V outlines what he expects from each of the key actors. However, the ‘unified vision’ that the Secretary General calls for is still a long way off as rifts have emerged among civil society and governments are cleverly keeping their heads in the sand till the final moment. The Annex to the report, an Agenda for Humanity, clearly lists the suggested commitments – could this provide the concrete ideas for groups to galvanise around?

The Secretary General recognises the UN’s role in the failure to date. Can he and his team deliver real change through the Summit? When we’ve seen so much achieved at the global level recently – Global Goals/SDGs and COP – is it realistic to expect the magnitude of change needed to be delivered in just 3 months time? To date the political will to seriously see humanitarianism as more than a front page winner for Presidents/Prime Ministers has been lacking. And the refugee crisis in the EU at the moment has demonstrated just how out of touch and short sighted many of our current leaders are. But then again the UN got Beyonce to sing on World Humanitarian Day !

Dear Summit organisers, please prove us sceptics wrong, pull off something of significance . . . something that at least leaves us with a roadmap or consensus to make a real global compact for change at a subsequent Summit in less than 3 years time. But this needs to be more than a good sing song, more than a global campaign to do better, this needs to be a CONCRETE AGREEMENT FOR CHANGE.

An ambivalence towards Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting

cultural relativism.jpgFor a number of years now I’ve worked, researched, and advocated against Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). And, yet, I still find myself with a sense of ambivalence towards the practice.

FGM/C, which is also known as Female Genital Mutilation or Female Circumcision refers to the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Over 125 million girls and women have undergone FGM/C worldwide.

The health consequences of FGM/C are devastating. According to the World Health Organization, FGM/C causes immediate and long term health consequences including pain, shock, bacterial infections, infertility, risk of childbirth complications, and sometimes even death. Consequently, some have argued that female “circumcision” is a form of “female genital mutilation” and should be eradicated (See the late Efua Dorkenoo’sCutting the Rose”).

Furthermore, FGM/C can be seen as a form of male control over and subjugation of women. Frequent justifications for the practice include ensuring virginity and purity before marriage and preventing infidelity during marriage. And let’s not forget that in most cases FGM/C is practised on minors, not of ‘consenting age’ and lacking informed choice.

So far, so unambiguous. FGM/C is a harmful practice which causes so much suffering. So why do I find myself ambivalent towards the work I’ve been doing over the last few years to advocate against it?

It is partly because I’ve also come to realise that anti-FGM/C campaigns can harm, as well as help women. FGM/C is a deeply culturally embedded practice. Consequently, it is not generally perceived as a form of “mutilation” by those who undergo the practice (See Ahmadu 2000). Women who do not undergo FGM/C could become ostracised from their own community or might be unable to marry. Also, is it really my place to determine what others can and can’t do to their own bodies?

Moreover, some people have claimed to detect racist connotations underlying the notion of “female genital mutilation”. Why is it that genital surgeries in the West – more snappily known as “designer vaginas” – are condoned, yet, as Uambai Sia Ahmadu argues, the same procedure on “African or non-white girls and women” is considered “Female Genital Mutilation”, even when it is conducted by health professionals. I personally think there is something very wrong with society if girls and women think they need to surgically alter their genitals…. However, Ahmadu’s points certainly raise some important questions.

In essence, my ambivalence is between a universalist, zero tolerance approach and an open, culturally relative one. Is there a way to combine the two positions? Marie-Bénédicte Dembour suggests embracing the ambivalence and adopting a mid-way position – to “err uncomfortably between the two poles represented by universalism and relativism” (Dembour 2001:59). Using the metaphor of a pendulum, Dembour argues that for FGM/C neither view can exist without the other because as soon as one stance is taken, you have to adjust to the other. In one context, FGM/C may be accepted; it may be practised out of love to ensure a daughter can be married. But in another context, e.g. in the UK, it may be seen as a form of child abuse. Dembour illustrates this point in reference to changing trends on legal decisions on FGM/C in France; moving to severe sentences in the 1980s and early 1990s and back to acquittals in the mid-1990s. She explains that having moved too far in one direction, the judiciary felt uncomfortable with this position and moved back to a more lenient one.

PenArguably, Dembour’s approach is a cop-out. It doesn’t provide any clear, forward direction. And, yet that is likely the point. FGM/C is a highly complex practice – there’s no definitive way forward, otherwise wouldn’t we already have figured that out?

Perhaps my way forward is to fit in-between the two poles and move towards either one depending on the context. For example, in a situation where I am clearly an outsider as a white woman from a non-practising community living in the UK, I find it difficult to condemn those who are not living in my own country for practising FGM/C. Our world views, knowledge, contexts are so very different and I, therefore, have no legitimacy condemning what they can and cannot do to their own bodies. In this situation, I find myself moving towards cultural relativism. However, I do feel that for those women and girls likely at risk or affected by FGM/C in the UK, I lean towards universalism and will advocate against FGM/C.

I’d like to open this discussion for others to contribute to. FGM/C is a highly sensitive and controversial issue, with multiple viewpoints on it. Do you agree with my reasoning here? And do you have other situations you’ve experienced that I and others also in this dilemma might be able to learn from and consider?