Searching for a new aid narrative - reflections from Bond UK’s conference

30 march 2017

Dóchas CEO, Suzanne Keatinge, reflects on her experiences at the Bond Conference in London last week (20 & 21st March 2017).

There was a great buzz about change and innovation at Bond UK’s London conference last week, where over 1200 delegates from the NGO community, gathered for two days of speeches and workshops. 

This was Bond’s biggest conference yet, where we got to hear from an array of powerful speakers, as well as participate in a range of discussions from improving impact, governance, innovation, the grand bargain, collaborating with business and much more.

But if there was an overwhelming consensus among participants on the need to change in the face of unprecedented conflict, famine and shrinking civil society space, as well as the political fallout from Trump and Brexit, it was less clear if there was consensus on how to change.

On the one hand, we heard about the need to reframe the aid narrative and tell our story better.  But for others, it was going to take a lot more.  Collaboration was a key theme, and it was needed to shape a powerful alternative vision about the world we wanted to live in.  Only then would development actors remain relevant in the new political reality of aid.   

The need for change

Given the mood in the UK, Europe and the US, no-one needed to be convinced that we are living in a time of unprecedented change for international development.  What was less apparent was whether we were already on a burning platform or whether there was still time to avoid the crisis. 

Mats Karlsson, from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, summed up his view by explaining that we are “living in a world of cynicism…one that is without facts, without norms and without accountability.” We needed to counter each of these, and fast, if we are to protect the role of development assistance, which remains, in Amartyn Sen’s famous words, about freedom and justice.

The impact of counter-terrorism was another underlying theme that was fuelling a sense of crisis. We heard of the shrinking of civil society space through attacks on freedoms of speech and association, which was suddenly becoming very real in Europe and the US, but has been part of most of the world’s reality for some time.   And the impact of this war on terror was brought home to us only too starkly a day after the conference, when the lone terrorist, Khalid Masood, attacked the Houses of Parliament – the very buildings we had been looking out at over the two days.

Others spoke of the toxic political environment that was rejecting multi-lateralism, abandoning the principles of solidarity, and very practically, withdrawing aid funding.  There was also lively debate on the lack of progress towards genuinely empowering southern partners. 

But there were also examples of tremendous opportunities and innovation in the sector.  The role of the United Nations was referenced as a powerful asset that needed to be reformed, but also defended.  There was much discussion on the increasing role of advocacy among NGOs, the advances in data gathering and technology.  Similarly, the Sustainable Development Goals was seen as an important unifying framework for transformative change. 

What change is needed?

Regardless of your starting point, the mood seemed to suggest that change was needed, but what needed to change?  The conference was opened by DFID’s head and Minister of State, Priti Patel, who believed it was about “standing together behind one big mega phone to tell people of the importance of the work we are doing".

She stressed the need for a diverse and vibrant civil society, which was welcome news for some, but there were a few wary grimaces among participants, particularly those still waiting to hear of DFID’s funding plans.  The Minister used the occasion to announce a new initiative to fund small NGOs - those operating on less than £250,000 – as she felt they were essential to building much needed trust with local communities in the UK.

She was also adamant that the UK Government was committed to mobilising other governments to tackle the multiple crises of famine, war and climate change, and that DFID would continue to play a global leadership role.  But aid, she argued, needed to be understood and aligned to being “in the national interest”.  It remained unclear whether she felt that the UK’s 0.7% commitment to aid was in that “national interest”—time will tell.  It was also difficult to see how the UK expected to continue to play that global leadership role.  After all, this was on the eve of the UK triggering Article 50, so they will no longer be at the European table.    

But for Patel, and each of the keynote speakers, there was consensus on one thing:  the need for better and more public engagement on aid - we are getting our narrative wrong.  Alexander Betts, Director of the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford University, suggested we needed to re-frame aid as being “good for the whole of society”— including Brexit voters—and then to communicate it better.  He also posed the challenge from his experiences on the refugee and migration crisis—isn’t it time for NGOs to bring their experiences back home?

A vision for development

But it was only in the final session of the conference that we got a glimpse of what a bold new vision for international development might really look like. In particular, Leymah Gbowee, Nobel peace prize winner from Liberia, gave a passionate speech about the need to break down barriers and work towards a long term vision that put human dignity and freedom at its heart.  We also needed to start organising around themes and ideas that unite us, breaking down the invisible barriers of race, class and religion wherever we are.    

But if she wanted to inspire and celebrate the importance of international development, she also wanted to remind us of the need for more humility.  “We’ve taken the human away – instead we talk about statistics,” she said.  She spoke also of the importance of accompaniment, and in particular, the need for INGOs to pay more attention to journeying with people, not leading them. Our role was to listen, and to put ourselves in the “place of service, to keep an open mind, and to believe that good can overcome evil,” she said. 

She left me with the sense of what a strong vision and leadership might look like, and that it was available to us if we took the opportunity to grasp it.  “We dreamed for peace in Liberia,” she said, that was her starting point against all the odds, and after a very, very long time her women’s movement succeeded.  She therefore put the challenge out there:  change needs to start by defining a strong alternative vision of the benefits of development. 

I certainly hope to be back at the Bond conference next year because it was a hugely energising two days.  But will the discussion on the need for change have moved on by then, to hearing how we’ve changed?  I’m less sure.