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Where next for International Development post Afghanistan?

Update from Wilton Park CEO Tom Cargill, September 2021

A friend who is a citizen of an African country, and who has long fought for human rights texted me this morning ‘Quite happy with the coup in Guinea. Don’t you think the time has come for the world to stop pretending and let these countries forge their own workable systems?’

Amongst the outpouring of agonised commentary on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, relatively little has considered what it means for current approaches to international development and support for good governance. This is important, especially in the context of President Biden’s remark that the withdrawal marks the end of an era when America has pursued ‘nation building’ abroad.

Noone yet is suggesting this means an end to efforts by the United States to improve governance and provide the basis for broad-based, sustainable economic growth among many of the world’s poorer states. This is certainly not the direction of travel for the UK, despite the recent temporary cuts to Official Development Assistance occasioned by the financial impact of Covid. Indeed the UK Government is currently developing a new International Development Strategy. Neither are any other richer democracies signalling a radical departure from previous development commitments in terms of approach, indeed France has signalled its desire to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income by 2025.

Yet although development efforts delivered concrete improvements in Afghanistan for a number of years, the failure of the nation-building mission underscores how elusive the ultimate goal of current approaches to international development remains. For while aid has a demonstrable track record of success in a number of countries in terms of education, health and other outcomes, those achievements remain fragile, and it is hard to identify many case studies of poor and economically vulnerable countries in recent decades that have transitioned to anything approaching resilient democracies with advanced diversified economies. The recent coup in Guinea which remains among the poorest countries in the world despite significant mineral wealth, and the significant reverses to development across Africa in particular brought about by the impact of Covid, equally highlight the challenges to current approaches.

This does not mean international development is a waste of time – far from it, as those real successes attest. What it may mean is that current approaches have reached a limit to what they can achieve, and we need some fresh and ambitious thinking about how to supercharge these efforts to support the economic and political momentum required to power countries beyond aid dependency. By doing so not only will we make much surer progress towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, but also demonstrate the continued attractiveness of our values, democratic norms and economic models, which are increasingly being challenged.

Wilton Park’s role is to inspire and mobilise the networks of influence Britain and the world need to solve the big global challenges. Taking international development to the next level is increasingly central to that work. Last year we ran a series of virtual workshops on the future of aid, bringing senior practitioners and policy makers together from around the world to consider the need for a fresh approach, particularly in the context of the impact of Covid. Core to this was the consideration of a new language and new partnerships. One critical insight, which the withdrawal from Afghanistan throws into sharp focus, is the need for a more inclusive approach that fully embraces the role of the international private sector alongside NGO and government partners – including potentially both military and non-military elements as part of a shared and clearly incentivised mission.

Over the coming weeks and months, we are injecting renewed urgency into this work, complementing the work of the UK’s international development strategy by reaching out to non-governmental partners, including businesses and NGOs to come together and re-energise both UK and wider global leadership on international development. The very visible pain of communities in Afghanistan so recently given hope and assurances for the future should spur our efforts. Their suffering is perhaps the most current and visible expression of a far wider risk of deteriorating faith in the hope offered by the democratic model and the values underpinning it. Talk of Afghanistan signalling some dramatic global change is overblown, but the window of opportunity to address this decline in faith continues to shrink and at a faster pace. Wilton Park is playing our role in mobilising the networks and fresh thinking we urgently need to reverse that decline in faith.

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