A conservative approach to aid

At 6.40am on January 1st I made a new year’s resolution. This year, I decided as I contemplated lifting my weary head from my worn-out pillow, I would become a conservative. With 40 not far off, and with Canberra’s political tides having turned, the time seemed right. Exchange the soy lattes for Victoria Bitter. Stop reading the Guardian. Trade in the Yaris for an SUV. Easy.

Alas, as with many resolutions, it didn’t last. Too ambitious, too abrupt, counter to too many habits. Yet the excursion was still a fruitful one, for it had me listen to this fascinating talk on Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott by Jesse Norman (an English Conservative MP) and had me re-read this brilliant essay review by George Scialabba.

There is a lot to be said for the conservatism of Oakeshott and Burke, who argued, in different ages and subtly different ways, for the accumulated wisdom of the past. To the extent the present works (and if you are reading this in reasonable comfort it is probably only fair to concede that it isn’t working that badly, for you at least) it works because the institutions and norms it is framed by are the product of lessons learnt. ‘Tradition’ is the word we have for such learning. And though it is easy to see shortcomings in any era, it is too easy to take for granted what tradition hath given. Too easy to fall prey to grand ideas of radical change, which will inevitably founder, because it turns out the good life is much, much harder to engineer than it seems. Burke wrote as the French revolution descended into the Terror, and Oakeshott in the time of Stalin. Events which made their arguments for them, which proved their points.

There is also, it’s true, a lot to be said against their conservatism. A particular problem for modern conservatives (one which Norman tries desperately to wiggle around in his talk; and Scialabba nails in his essay) is that the most radical idea of our day isn’t socialism or some other form of egalitarianism, but unbridled capitalism, something most modern conservatives spend at least half their time espousing. And, for better and for worse, the main threat to many of the traditions of our time is no longer enlightenment ideas but commerce and market forces.

Another obvious complaint is of the ‘well you would say that’ sort. While there may be more to be said for the status quo than some admit, many of the complaints against it are still real. And the line between reasonable caution and self-serving stasis advocacy is a thin one, especially when — hello Messrs Burke, Oakeshott and Norman — you happen to be doing far better from the current state of affairs than the average person.

There’s also the argument made by George Orwell in critiquing Oakeshott (I think, although I can’t Google it up). Conservatism is far too pessimistic. For every failed radical idea there are others that worked. Universal suffrage was once viewed as dangerously utopian, yet democracy has brought better lives, not chaos. The state providing health and education services for all was once a bold, untested idea, yet the welfare state works, not perfectly, but better than the alternatives. And a conservative of Oakeshott or Burke’s time would have almost certainly opposed anything as tradition-tearing as feminism. Yet empowering women hasn’t brought the end of the family or social chaos. Rather, it is making our world a fairer one.

Even so, I thought to myself this morning, as I stared down at the soothing swirls of soy atop my coffee, open copy of the New Yorker on the table, there is something to be said for a conservative approach to aid. Of course, the world of aid is hardly the domain of firebrand radicals. Yet, possibly because its consequences are felt mostly in far away places, aid is the domain of the Big Idea. From shock therapy, to Cash on Delivery, to aid for trade, to partnership Paris-style, to giving directly, ours is an arena of thinking that is bold, either theoretically appealing or ethically enticing, and often wrong. Given a history dotted with failures, and given just how hard development is, aid could do with do with far fewer of these big ideas and a lot more careful, incremental change.

What would this mean in practice? It certainly wouldn’t mean dismantling an aid agency on a whim. Or cutting staff. Instead, it would involve affording aid workers time to actually engage with their work, and to learn the lessons to be learnt, rather than hurriedly shovelling money out the door, or running round in harried circles trying to keep up with the political impulse to change. And it wouldn’t mean no new ideas (some work, after all) — but it would require change be based on evidence, and significantly more resources be devoted to evaluation.

What I am suggesting then, would be a long way from the current practices of the Conservative governments in power in Canada, New Zealand and Australia. And, it’s true, it would also be a decisive break from the traditional ways of ODA, at least as practised by most donors. Yet it would be a break from tradition in the name of tradition — in the name of carefully learning the lessons to be learnt from the history of aid practice. In the complicated world of development, these lessons, coupled with good intentions, offer the best path to aid which actually helps. Forget big ideas and radical change. Small ideas and accumulated learning — that would be a truly conservative approach to aid.

Terence Wood is a Research Officer at the Development Policy Centre and a PhD student at ANU. Prior to commencing study he worked for the New Zealand government aid program.

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Terence Wood

Terence Wood is a Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. His research focuses on political governance in Western Melanesia, and Australian and New Zealand aid.


  • I enjoyed reading your article and think you raise some good points and deliver them in interesting/engaging ways…

    The section where a call is made for ‘change [to] be based on evidence, and significantly more resources be devoted to evaluation], than now also caused me to reflect a bit… Perhaps it is a truism to say that aid agencies can never be separated from the political context in which they’re embedded – and that politicians of a day generally have markedly different agendas than aid agencies. Those that don’t are few in number and seemingly (sadly), constrained by this alongside systems functioning as they do…

    In this context I think more evaluation might only further stultify things happening in the field. Too often already it seems that evaluation are done only to later gather dust, particularly as presiding politicians/the political context change/s… And that money is often wasted with the trash at the end of a budget cycle to get rid of it… (Plus the intra-agency largesse that this can create…). How does this change…?/How do people exert agency to make change, be change…? These are ‘BIG’ questions indeed as you say in my opinion, and similar to so many others that are important and have been important…

    I think we can agree that more scrutiny of ‘evidence’ is needed – or rather that scrutiny needs to lead, perhaps, to particular radical outcomes being pursued or achieved… Questions question though right… That’s philosophy… There is a balance between conceptualizing and taking action…

  • After many years working in development and feeling increasingly despondent at the disconnect between aspiration and money on one hand, and engagement and sustainable help on the other, reading your message was refreshing. I entirely agree on the need for more time – more time to learn about the country and its culture and history, and more time to engage with people there. Otherwise we don’t know the starting point or what is likely to work. Country leaders and also consultants often like to appear at the cutting edge, and the consequent helicoptering in of models such as NPM – that depend on an institutional environment which isn’t actually there – has been damaging. Evaluation is of course a good idea, even essential, but it can often deteriorate into putting excessive time and focus on specification in advance of objectives and final impact with little regard to what happens in between. Process is crucial. Not to mention the problems of measurement and attribution that performance evaluation often bypasses.

    • Thank you Helen. I definitely agree with you on context. I think you’re right on evaluations too. I’m a fan of RCTs and other impact evaluations, but definitely agree they need to be coupled with careful study of process. It’s all well and good knowing whether something has worked or not, but more important still to know why…

  • Hi Terence, this is a great post and I definitely get behind the value of “small ideas and accumulated learning.”

    I recently took a class with the former Director of the USAID programme under G.W. Bush, Andrew Natsios. He confirmed your suspicion that conservatives would seek more measurement of aid. In fact Republican politicians pushed so much for numbers that Natsios himself turned on this ideology to try and give aid workers some room to do their work. I think Natsios’ essay is at least an valuable contribution to the ongoing debate on quantifying development: http://international.cgdev.org/publication/clash-counter-bureaucracy-and-development

    Religious conservatives in the US (Natsios included) do tend to give a decent amount of fiscal support for the charity of foreign aid. In contrast, conservatives here in NZ and now in Australia have become ironically isolationist in their crusade for fiscal discipline. As an agnostic perhaps I’m not the best to judge the place of religion in foreign aid, but Christian values certainly shaped the way Professor Natsios approached issues in USAID’s work. A book he assigned, ‘The Central Liberal Truth’ by Larry Harrison is essentially a veiled attempt to promote the Protestant work ethic in the developing world. Some may see sense in it… I call it cultural imperialism.

    I was impressed by Natsios’ genuine desire to run as effective of an aid programme as he could. To him this meant serious spending priorities. This brings us full circle to your point Terence, where conservative priorities are squarely fixed on areas where we know aid works. This is why Natsios’ budget favoured public health, even when we know that there are far more areas that need attention for development to be sustained.

    • Thanks Marc,

      Interesting comment. I was unaware Natsios was a religious conservative (not that it matters either way of course — but interesting.) The paper you mention is fascinating too. I side with Nastios up to a point. A crude approach to trying to quantify everything (and to M&E more generally) means enhanced admin burden while at the same time generating relatively little learning. OTOH — there is still a lot to learn in aid, and so coupling work with much more genuine learning-inducing M&E and research is what I’d advocate, as well as giving aid staff time to do it properly, and to learn from it.



      • Just a quick comment regarding Natsios. Maybe he did some good as USAID Administrator but his legacy is forever darkened by some of the most damaging and ignorant comments on anti-retroviral treatment ever uttered (by anyone let alone a senior development leader). Stating that the US couldn’t give medication to Africans because Africans don’t have watches and can’t tell time. Studies show that adherence to treatment rates in Africa are higher than in the US (even without said Rolexes).

        I hope he didn’t believe what he was saying and was just providing a lame excuse for inaction prior to PEPFAR being announced a year or two later.

        • Thanks Joel,

          The paper Marc links to is a very interesting read but I think a reasonable critique would be that Natsios is too confident of what aid can achieve and of what aid agencies are capable of. So it’s, perhaps, fitting that he can be found elsewhere saying things that were spectacularly wrong.

          • ….although to be fair to Nastios, one of the hard jobs of a civil servant is to do as your are told and offer explanations for it so, as you suggest, he might have been simply wearing it for his political masters.

  • Terrence

    This is really an enjoyable read, both in style and content. I read it as soon as it was posted, and have returned a number of times to read again as it has created some reflection for me, though not in terms of amber fluid.

    There is one particular element you comment on that creates contemplation.

    Towards the end of your piece you comment that a [better] practice could “involve affording aid workers time to actually engage with their work, and to learn the lessons to be learnt, rather than hurriedly shovelling money out the door”. It is preceded by a statement referring to an aid agency.

    While I doubt it is your intent in the writing, for each word seems purposeful, it would be a shame if ‘aid worker’ is interpreted as only ‘an officer of an aid agency’. All who are engaged in supporting the delivery of an aid program (be they agency officers, the private sector, NGOs, individuals), given more time to engage, learn etc as you write must create the possibility of better outcomes. And it would seem particularly useful in that context if ‘aid worker’ was also interpreted as a collective and hence “small ideas and accumulated learning” is not lost to fragmentation.

    Mel Dunn

    • Thanks Mel good point – to be clear, I definitely mean aid worker to mean all those working in aid (including contractors, NGO staff, and the like).



  • Huh. Well maybe that’s why it didn’t work? I have to confess that, as a New Zealander, I don’t really understand Australian beer political affiliations…

    • I suspected as much, just didn’t want to be accused of other-side-of-the-pond discrimination! Next time you probably want to go for a nice South Australian shiraz.

  • The only people I know who drink VB are radical lefties who still think the “Socialist Worker” is an informative source of information.

    • Yes, there are a few amber fluid sub-cultures in Australia. The well-off urbane conservatives tend to drink imported lagers from the big global breweries, while the lefty intellectuals drink local craft beers and exotic pale ales.
      The VB drinkers probably don’t self-affiliate with either the left or right, but in previous eras would have been in favour of workers’ rights and protectionism (left-leaning), but today they are more associated with the ‘mortgage belt’ in the outer suburbs of our big cities and tend to vote conservative.

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