International Development Committee inquiry: The philosophy and culture of aid

Evidence submission from the Institute of Development Studies

About the Institute of Development Studies

The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) is a global research and learning organisation for equitable and sustainable change. IDS is ranked best international development policy think tank (2020 Global Go To Think Tank Index) and first in the world for development studies with the University of Sussex for the fifth year running by the QS University Rankings.


This submission draws on evidence from across IDS and is led by IDS Director, Professor Melissa Leach and IDS Director of Research, Peter Taylor.


For further information relating to this evidence submission please contact: Sophie Robinson, External Affairs Officer, or +44 (0)1273 915763.



Executive Summary




1.1. We believe that a new approach is needed to global development, and to the UK’s aid and development strategy. Covid-19 has devastated societies and economies globally, exposing the weaknesses of traditional models of development. Models for example that use one size fits all approaches that lack diversity of local needs or use blueprint planning and fail to adapt to changing contexts and shocks. Re-building from the pandemic, the merging of DFID with the FCDO, and the UK’s G7 and COP26 leadership roles, all present an opportunity to re-set what have become outdated ways of working. Now is the time for the UK to establish an integrated aid and development strategy that is fit for current realities and embeds preparedness creating resilience to future global shocks. At IDS, we have identified several areas in which a collective endeavour within, across and beyond the development sector is urgently needed to change how we ‘understand’ and ‘do’ development.

2.Facing up to injustice and inequality

2.1. From the tragic death of George Floyd in the US, to the tragedy unfolding in Yemen and many other unreported experiences, terrible and deep-seated injustices and inequalities continue across the world. Everyone involved in development must face up to this, including confronting the fundamental structural constraints that perpetuate these inequities and inequalities, and find ways to deliver on commitments made to tackle embedded inequalities and injustices of all kind.

2.2. Instead of development and aid actors focusing on narrow frames of poverty, there needs to be more recognition of the multiple, intersecting inequalities. These injustices and inequities are by no means new. The 2016 World Social Science Report on Challenging Inequalities stated that inequalities are multi-dimensional, multi-layered and cumulative”. However, they have been exposed and exacerbated in different ways through the disruptions and shocks that are shaping our era – from Covid-19, climate change and financial crises to conflict, new technologies and more. These disruptions, which share many underlying causes, are both threatening collective futures and sharpening the vulnerabilities felt by particular people and groups.

2.3. Delivery of aid and development will also be more effective if it acknowledges and embraces the multiple, intersecting inequalities, and learn from intersecting programmes such as the FCDO-funded programme provided by the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development, which aims to redress the impact of discrimination based on religion or belief. It examines gender, faith and development in countries including Nigeria, Pakistan and Iraq and works through collaborations between humanitarian organisations, faith leaders, rights activists and development practitioners.

3. Shifting the cultures of aid

3.1. There are cultures within the aid industry itself that should face up to and redress the inequities in its own institutions and in the ways it works with ‘beneficiaries’. This has been well highlighted for instance in the International Development Committee’s inquiries into sexual harassment and safeguarding challenges within aid and humanitarian delivery.

3.2. Overall, there needs to be a move away from a ‘we know best’ culture, based on a presumption of superiority amongst ‘developers’, and a transfer of plans and approaches onto beneficiaries. To create cultures that are humbler, they need to be open to respectful exchanges of learning between countries, places and people, and more adaptive. They should also be based on interdisciplinary science and evidence (in all its diversity and co-created with participatory methods).

3.3. One problem that has persisted overtime is the issue of development and humanitarian actors operating in siloes. This prevents them from working well together and is part of a wider aid culture that needs to change. We all work in what can still be a quick-fix, short-term, sector and aid can still be delivered with a ‘paper-over-the-cracks mentality, which means the most challenging, root causes are unseen. This can also lead to a failure to also properly engage with those who experience the greatest inequalities. This leaves the underlying fractures remaining and failing to address in the short-term for financial or political expediency is likely to create greater challenges for efficiencies and effectiveness of aid in the future.

4. Better linking humanitarian aid and development

4.1. Conflict and the increasingly protracted and recurrent nature of crises, combined with high numbers of displaced persons, at a time when climate-related shocks are more frequent and intense, cannot be addressed by humanitarian aid alone. Whilst it provides some form of short-term relief, it is not configured to address structural problems such as systemic inequalities and injustices which are often most acute in humanitarian contexts – issues of social injustice such as of women’s rights, of marginalisation, or equitable access to services, security, justice. Moreover, humanitarian contexts are constantly changing and are becoming more and more complex. Emergencies occur in places affected by underdevelopment, involved in armed conflicts or facing natural disasters or endemics. Each of these situations requires a specific and adapted response which the humanitarian sector cannot and should not deal with alone.

4.2. The need to link humanitarian and development – most recently called ‘nexus’ has been a common feature in global policies, has promoted a local approach with localisation high on the agenda. However, the global humanitarian community have struggled to understand community level dynamics and how to recreate a new understanding of protracted crisis in terms of agency.  As such, we need to refine social norms from the bottom-up to go beyond the humanitarian – development nexus. This is why the IDS-based Humanitarian Learning Centre is focussed on research into new ‘bottom-up’ approaches to humanitarian protection, with the aim of successfully identifying examples of local protection measures then sharing these with similar communities experiencing violence and aid agencies. The online platform, the Social Science Humanitarian Action Platform (SSHAP), co-led by IDS, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Anthrologica and funded by the FCDO and Wellcome Trust, also aims to facilitate this approach, connecting rapid analysis, insight and advice from social scientists with regional and development subject expertise with humanitarian responders, to better design and implement emergency responses.

5. Recognise that development means progressive change for everyone, everywhere

5.1. The effects of Covid-19 have been felt in different ways but have affected the entire globe. The pandemic makes clear that there is much need for learning by dominant northern powers, including the UK and the US, from the global South. The experience up-ends a north-south hierarchy that has dominated for too long, with the pandemic underlining the need for global solidarities and mutual learning. A universal, and decolonised approach to development that include equitably a diversity of voices and perspectives is critical in tackling the global challenges ahead from health to climate change.

5.2. The Sustainable Development Goals (UN Global Goals) were established to ensure that no-one is left behind. Yet more needs to be done to make the universality of development a driving force for change. This is needed as part of an overall commitment and contribution to multi-lateral efforts, in ways that help promote necessary reforms.

5.3. In responding to the social and economic impacts of both the disease and control measures, Covid-19 has forced governments across richer as well as poorer countries to consider how to realise development through policies and practices such as humanitarian reconstruction, new forms of social protection, and programmes targeting the most vulnerable.

5.4. For example, digital rights and access to the internet during Covid-19 has become a critical issue for countries all over the world, and causing a digital divide for people in low, middle and high-income countries.  With impacts on education, employment and access to health services, IDS researchers are responding to this issue with research on digital marginalization among vulnerable workers and unemployed people in Brighton, London, and New York City.

6. Build and connect solidarities for collective action, locally and globally

6.1. Responses to global challenges such as climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrate that knowledge, action and leadership can emerge at local levels, as well as, or often in the absence of, action at state, national and global levels. Neighbourhood quarantines, initiatives to provide food and other kinds of support to the most vulnerable, community gardens and local actions to eradicate plastic waste are just a few amongst myriad recent examples across the world.  For development donors and aid agencies this is further evidence that they need to work hand in hand with local actors and follow bottom-up approaches based on the local realities and evidence from the ground. Actions taken by development donors and aid agencies need to be informed by the knowledge and practical experience of those most affected, rather than imposing top-down measures they (the donors and aid agencies) believe to be best.

6.2. More concerted efforts need to be undertaken to connect such local initiatives with national and global collective action, whether through encouraging government recognition and support, strengthening international financial, economic, health and environmental governance, or sharing science and data. For example, the World Health Organization’s repeated calls for global solidarity in relation to Covid-19 have been heeded by many, but international collaboration is still limited. Global partnership is an essential part of the equation in tackling global challenges – whether that’s finding treatments and ensuring equitable vaccine distribution for Covid-19, tackling climate and environmental vulnerabilities or understanding and addressing institutional and systemic racism – and pressure needs to be applied to governments worldwide not to retreat behind borders.

7. Meet the challenges of uncertainty by working adaptively and in ways that are informed by people’s lived realities

7.1. Our world is highly uncertain. How we live, work and connect is being disrupted by rising temperatures, new technologies, emerging diseases and displacement caused by conflict and climate change. These are not issues that are amenable to the planning and control-oriented interventions that have been core to much conventional development. Nor can they be reduced to risks that can be neatly identified, predicted, controlled and overcome. Instead, we face far more complex, messy, ongoing situations involving emergent effects and feedbacks. This requires flexibility, adaptation, iteration and learning-by-doing, and an emphasis on the building of resilient systems. Ways of working must also be shaped by a deep understanding of how different people in different places experience and respond to these disruptions and multiple uncertainties and precarities in their everyday lives. Covid-19 has demonstrated the inadequacy of our institutions and systems in responding effectively to uncertainty, and their inability – and unwillingness – to embrace it. This needs to change.

8. Value diverse knowledge and expertise

8.1. We need expertise from across disciplines, countries, sectors and communities, and better ways of facilitating the collaborative generation and sharing of this knowledge and learning. During Covid-19, the mantra of ‘led by the science’ misleadingly presents science as a singular, uncontested, unbiased thing operating outside of politics and social norms. The range of disciplines drawn on in most national responses has been narrow, dominated by epidemiology and biomedicine. Bringing wider forms of expertise to bear means, for example, challenging assumptions underpinning scientific modelling; drawing on social sciences to understand how the virus is spreading, between whom, and who is vulnerable and why; and complementing formal science with the knowledge and learning of local populations – as occurred so effectively in countries such as Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia during the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak. It means investing in equitable and sustainable research partnerships, that value and strengthen the knowledge and expertise produced by institutions, universities and communities in low- and middle-income countries.

9. Understand, address and challenge power imbalances

9.1. Most important in changing the way we think about and do development is to understand, address and challenge deep-seated power imbalances. Power relations underlie the causes of, and vulnerabilities linked to health, climate and economic disruptions. They lie at the heart of inequalities and injustices. Whether progressive economic, social and environmental change takes place ultimately depends on political choice and mobilisation, involving citizens, states and other actors, in processes that will often be highly charged.

9.2. Development can no longer be imagined as a technical matter but must be treated as thoroughly political. Technocratic approaches that underplay the significance of power and politics will not be effective. We must also move beyond limited applications of ‘thinking and working politically’ in aid programmes, to embedding understandings of politics and power more widely and deeply in attempts to influence change and transformation. And in doing so, we must look within our own organisations and institutions at how we create and prop-up, consciously or sub-consciously, entrenched power relations, injustices and inequalities. Whether through the ways in which we approach partnership, in relation to where and who we choose to engage with, in how we frame and teach development or in how far we reflect equality and diversity across all that we do, it is time to match our commitments to a more equitable and sustainable external world with commitments to justice in our institutional practices.

10. Reforming the approach to economic development

10.1. The pandemic has shown that we need a fundamental reorientation of priorities for a different type of economy.  For the benefit of global development, we need to re-shape economies around resilience. Approaches to economic development that foreground growth, underplay diverse values including resilience and environmental sustainability, are no longer fit for purpose.

10.2. Pandemic control measures significantly affected those that relied on informal economies; for example, in India where labour migrants suffered significantly when they returned to their rural villages. Informal economies have long been considered ‘peripheral’ and yet can provide key services like waste disposal and food provision. We need to think how economies can be organised around labour and not just around profit. In particular, consideration must be given to key and essential workers who are so crucial to pandemic responses yet are often in highly precarious jobs and are disproportionately women, ethnic minorities and migrants.

10.3. We need an alternative to the globalised neoliberal economy that is dominated by the pursuit of risk and reward, profit and growth. This needs to prioritise resilience, with the ability of economies and states to respond to shocks and uncertainties and protect all populations, including the marginalised.

11. UK Government development diplomacy

11.1. It is increasingly clear that in our era development will be part of great power diplomacy, and this brings needs and opportunities for ‘grand strategy’ that integrates foreign policy and development approaches. The tools of development are extremely useful for diplomacy, and tools of diplomacy valuable for development – this integration indeed should be the gain from the FCDO merger.

11.2. The UK’s role as a development superpower – in its programming, expertise and reputation established by DFID – are vital to our diplomacy and global reputation but are now at risk of being through development cuts. Yet, the merger of DFID and the FCO could present an opportunity for the UK to exercise its soft power and play a positive role on the world stage, by combining its excellence in research with its global championing of social justice and political stability. It is an opportunity to recognise that technical and political aspects of development have never been separate; to make more explicit this integration and channel it in positive directions.

12. An FCDO that works globally and locally

12.1. In an integrated FCDO, the UK’s approach to multilateral development co-operation will be critical to integrated development and diplomatic objectives. However, it is important also to embrace the opportunities afforded by localisation. The UK has championed over a long time the importance of working with and from the perspectives of developing countries, and especially the perspectives of people living in poverty and marginalisation. DFID gained a strong reputation for approaches that bring in local knowledge and people’s own voices, realities and priorities, in inclusive, multi-level approaches. There are now renewed arguments for localisation in development and humanitarian action, and for a shift in aid to be more bottom up and work through local organisations and grassroots groups. The arguments are both normative and pragmatic (the latter include more effective and efficient aid, better value for money).

12.2. The UK is well positioned to play a global leadership role in achieving localised approaches well. A joined-up FCDO at the country mission level offers important opportunities here, enabling work that is fully embedded in local contexts and develops the right partnerships with local business, civil society and research organisations. The UK is also well-positioned and respected as a convenor of partners from multiple countries, to develop mutual learning about localised approaches in practice and what works well, when and how.

12.3. The UK should also emphasise by its actions the importance of engaging with multilateral system, in ways that help to enable its goals whilst also playing a part in necessary reforms. There is a risk to the UK’s global reputation and influence by not playing a full and cooperative role in these processes.

13. Retaining and enhancing expertise, skills and capacity 

13.1. These integrated approaches to development diplomacy, and thinking and working politically both globally and locally, need to be informed by evidence and expertise. This needs to integrate technical and social/political issues and means that social and political understandings – and the social sciences that underpin these – have vital roles to play, in conjunction with and complementary to topic-specific expertise in health, agriculture, and so on.

13.2. This is not just ‘nice to have’, an added value to improve development diplomacy, or a non-essential luxury that can be dispensed with amidst scarce resources. On the contrary, evidence and expertise are essential for FCDO to build successful programmes, make a difference and achieve value for money. Without it, there are serious risks that programmes will fail and waste funds – with damage to the UK’s reputation.