The enduring challenge of development

“Development is the biggest moral and political challenge of our times,” says Clare Short. And she should know. Six years as the UK’s former – and first – secretary of state for international development was not enough – development has continued to shape and underpin her subsequent career, up to and including her current position as chair of the Cities Alliance.

“It’s very simple,” she says. “We cannot have a stable world and we cannot even dream of moving towards sustainable economic systems without transforming opportunities in poorer countries. We just need to get on with it because, while there are still enormous challenges, there are enormous opportunities too.”

Brick by brick

The Cities Alliance – a global partnership for poverty reduction and the eradication of slums in cities around the world – is the latest of several development-based roles since Short stepped down from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) in 2003 and as an MP (after 27 years) in 2010. Other roles soon followed, such as chairing the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, an NGO which works to promote public awareness of how countries manage their oil, gas and mineral resources, and as patron of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition.

The challenge of how to channel the opportunities inherent in urbanisation, though, is clearly one that whets her appetite. Around a quarter of the world’s urban population (880 million people) live in slums and this number is rising fast, according to the United Nations World Cities Report 2016. But what is a “slum” exactly? The Cities Alliance describes them as “informal settlements within cities that have inadequate housing and squalid, miserable living conditions. They are often overcrowded, with many people crammed into very small living spaces.”

Short believes that their prevalence is rooted in the complexities that underpin a rapidly urbanising landscape. “If you look at the history books, you’ll see that when urbanisation occurred in the UK’s industrial revolution or in Western Europe or the US, it can deliver massive economic growth but also challenges like slums, child labour and corruption,” she says. “Slums don’t have the basic services that most of us take for granted – water, paved sidewalks, easy access to schools – and some have been there for decades.”

She goes on to pinpoint Africa as a case in point. “If urbanisation is managed well, it can lift up a country or indeed a continent,” she explains. “Africa is the least urbanised continent, but it is urbanising faster than any continent ever has before – not just mega-cities but towns and so on. It is a massive shift that brings opportunities but dangers too. If its young generation, which is increasingly hooked up to the outside world, can’t get a job then they are not going to take it quietly.”

The frustration in Short’s voice is palpable as she says that slum-dwellers have so much untapped potential. “They are such brilliant, resourceful people. They build houses and enterprises out of nothing, despite the lack of clean water and electricity. If we could just fix this, like they have done in Medellín in Colombia, what could be achieved in terms of economic development and human capital is phenomenal. But at the moment it’s not happening fast enough.”

Asked why this is the case, she says it is down to a variety of factors. “There is so much that could be done that isn’t being done,” she says. “There is conservatism in systems and people don’t want change, plus cities are turbulent and exciting and a bit dangerous – it is less easy to help people without feeling the threat of their potential power.”

From idea to impact

Short has always been fascinated by development, but it was only after the 1997 general election in the UK that she got the chance to turn her ideas into reality. Having previously served as the Labour Party’s overseas development spokesperson, she became international development secretary, overseeing the transformation of the previous Overseas Development Administration into the newly independent DFID, which for the first time would have a Cabinet-level representative.

“In practical terms, this change meant that lots of UK interventions on the world stage would no longer be considered just through the prism of what is in the UK’s national interest but also what kind of agreements would be in the interests of poorer countries,” explains Short. “This was a much bigger canvas and it caused all kinds of ructions in the civil service as systems adjusted to this new reality, but over time people became interested in that bigger set of questions because they are very challenging and interesting.”

When it came to her aims and ambitions for DFID, Short says she leant heavily on the work of the OECD Development Committee (DAC), now led by Charlotte Petri Gornitzka. “There were masses of big UN meetings in the 1990s, like the Beijing conference for women,” recalls Short. “People thought there was real progress being made but DAC then produced a report distilling all the proposals from these conferences, which basically led to them asking for a greater sense of ambition. Their report, Shaping the 21st Century, had a series of international development targets, pushed further and harder, and I restructured DFID around those objectives.”

She says it was a time of high morale and enthusiasm across the department, tempered somewhat by her government’s use of targets and deliverology directed from Number 10. “When we got an increase in finances in return for a new series of targets and ‘deliverables’, I didn’t think it was particularly helpful,” she admits. “I saw these as bureaucratic targets which were unnecessary, as we already had a clear focus. We had to try and merge them, and what I saw happening as a constituency MP in areas such as education and health was also overly bureaucratic, leading to reduced morale and gaming in order to hit what we were expected to.”

That’s not to say Short is against having targets, however. “I think that clear, focused objectives built on some kind of analysis are very good,” she says. “But if you overdo it and take away the room for creativity then this is a problem – I think this happened across much of the UK’s public sector and it was very destructive.”

Positive steps forward

Did you get what you wanted done? The question prompts a pause but then a strong defence of DFID’s early achievements. “Nothing is ever perfect, especially when you’re working on international development, but being there for six years was unusual – many other ministers were in post for far shorter periods – so we were really able to make an impact,” she says.

“I think of our progress in Rwanda, in particular. We were the first government to go there when it was still having emergency food aid and no-one else wanted to know. But we got involved and it was a real collaboration from scratch. We made a long-term commitment which was supported by the Rwandan government and, over time, the country has gone from strength to strength. And in Ethiopia we had a similar success, and again it was very much a joint programme of development agreed with the government that was key – we were in no way a hectoring donor telling them what to do. You can’t do that and hope to build effective working relationships.”

Such successes showcase what can be done, but Short concludes by repeating her warning that there is always more to do. “The work is never done until every country is evenly developed and there really are no extremely poor people,” she says. “And although we were part of an era of big change with the Millennium Development Goals and some considerable achievements – which we helped to shape – development is very much a work in progress.”

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