Chief Commissioner Speech at the Know How Fund delivered on 27 November 2013

28 Oct 2013

FCO and British Council Aid Response to the Arab Spring

Thank you. I am Graham Ward, the Chief Commissioner for the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. I am pleased to be here today to contribute to this discussion on the significance and legacy of the Know How Fund.

ICAI is a new organisation at the table of development assessment. Having operated for the last three years, we continue to strive for reports which are: relevant; timely; concise and easy to understand (no matter how complex the topic being reviewed). In June, we published our report “FCO and British Council Aid Response to the Arab Spring”, which focused on the Arab Partnership: more specifically, on the Arab Partnership Participation Fund. We used two case study countries in preparing our report: Egypt and Tunisia.

Some believe that the Arab Partnership used the footprint left by the Know How Fund. A past format deployed on a new region with a similar set of issues. I, therefore, want to look forward from the Know How Fund and the views already expressed by the panel, to the Arab Partnership and what we found from this relatively new programme earlier this year.

The context, within which these two programmes emerged, is similar of course. At the time of scoping the work for our report, the world’s attention was firmly placed on the Middle East and the Arab Spring. A series of events that was creating new governments and affecting states in a domino fashion across the region.

The Foreign Office had been through similar circumstances before in recent memory, as this mimicked the events of the end of the Cold War. It would be surprising, considering the rarity of such events, if the Foreign Office had not looked at past models and considered what could be learnt and used again under these similar circumstances.

Can I, therefore, claim that the Know How Fund was a success because it appears to be the basic model for the Arab Partnership? No, I wouldn’t go that far. But I will outline some aspects that we found in our assessment of the APPF in Egypt and Tunisia, that are relevant to this discussion.

The intended beneficiaries are always at the heart of our reports at ICAI. This brings up interesting questions: Who are the beneficiaries in this case?; and who should be benefiting from this ODA spend? In most programmes we see this is easy to identify: a region with new health facilities, a village with a new school, a family with anti-malaria bed nets. In this case, however, it is not just those who have direct interaction with the projects. It is the wider society of those countries. And it does not stop there. Alastair Burt gave us a hint of this in his online video on the Arab Partnership when he said, “our security and prosperity on this island are closely linked to the region’s long term stability”. Sound familiar? It certainly did to me when reading about the Know How Fund. The Arab Partnership is not only about the benefits to the citizens of these countries. As in the case of the KHF it is about our own security too. Nonetheless, those living, working and striving for greater democracy and accountability in partner countries must remain our focus.

When there are this many beneficiaries, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees. That is why I want to take you to the grass roots, to Egypt and Tunisia where our team got busy on the ground. I am not sure that they expected to be tear gassed on their arrival in Cairo but it did add a certain flavour to our work.  Three projects in particular are worth mentioning to show the achievements of the APPF:

  •  The centre for the study of Islam and Democracy Tunisia, as a first example, is a Think Tank that is widely respected across the local political spectrum. It received APPF funding to support cross-party dialogue on the new Tunisian constitution. An initial workshop of 200 people identified the most contentious issues, which were then discussed in six small working groups of senior political figures. The outcome of this dialogue was a series of draft texts that were taken back to debate in the Tunisian parliament. The success here was the speed of response, taking advantage of a narrow window of time to have the maximum effect. As anyone here who is involved in constitutional law will know, moving these things forward can be very difficult and actions which move the drafting forward, whilst building consensus, should be warmly welcomed.
  •  Arab Partnership funding also contributed towards the establishment of Aswat Masriya, an independent web platform for objective high-quality reporting on the Egyptian elections. This site became the most reputable source of reporting on the elections, and it had over 175,000 hits per month. This also provided a platform for the training of journalists on political reporting in a democratic context. Creating a free press is something which we all recognise as a valuable cornerstone of democracy.
  •  The final example I want to draw attention to is the British Council run Young Arab Voices programme, which operates across the region. This supports the establishment of debating clubs in high schools, universities and NGOs. Our team witnessed very enthusiastic participation from young people in these clubs. This helps to promote a new form of political discourse in which diverse views are expressed and analysed on their own merits.

So the APPF can claim to have: aided the drafting of a constitution; established a reliable source of information for Egyptian citizens; and enabled young people to engage with others who have a different perspective.

This is not to say that all projects were a success. A high risk portfolio means that some projects will fail. This is right. If it was not the case, the programme would have been insufficiently ambitious. Some projects, however, as those which I have already mentioned demonstrate, do have the potential to help the development of newly democratising states. The key is to learn as you are going. Ensure that you understand why projects succeed and why projects fail and learn from this when selecting future options. We welcomed both the high risk portfolio and the grass roots demand approach taken by the APPF, which we considered was right for this programme.

The programme was, of course, overseen by officials in country, with not only FCO staff but DFID officials contributing. I am always pleased to see good cross departmental working. The media can be relied upon to seize on the merest whiff of infighting amongst civil servants. Departments, however, can and do work together and in this case we saw evidence of the relationship working well. Staff from DFID on loan to the FCO brought development experience and we found that this enhanced the relationships and credentials of all of those on the team.

DFID officials, however, were not the only familiar faces involved in the APPF. The British Council is also working to deliver APPF projects. This makes yet another organisation that has experience of both the APPF and the Know How Fund. Their knowledge and experience, of course, stretches further than these two sets of projects, making delivery through the British Council a  tried and tested approach. It demonstrates a level of trust and confidence in the activities of the British Council which did not disappoint in the activities we saw on the ground.

So the projects emerged from the grass roots, staff with a range of experiences were there to take them forward, but we were also impressed with the flexibility of the programme and its ability to learn and change as it went ahead. I understand that this was a feature of the Know How Fund as well. This is not, however, commonly enough found amongst ODA programmes. Learning is often the weakest marking we give in our reports, yet it is crucial to the delivery of effective, value for money interventions.

Learning and the ability to respond to your surroundings can make or break aid programmes. Money has no doubt been wasted across the globe on projects that fail to accept and respond to emerging challenges and changing contexts. The Arab Partnership and Know How Fund, however, both appear to have this rare quality, the continuation of which is vital if the APPF is to achieve its medium and long term objectives.

There is still more learning to be done. Our recommendations pointed to potential improvements in: developing an explicit theory of change; introducing a grant making procedure that can distinguish between partners’ delivery and financial management capabilities; improving programme management skills; and sharing further knowledge across other programmes.

Nonetheless, the APPF has had a positive start and deserves the Green/Amber rating we awarded it earlier this year. I look forward to seeing what work has been done and what improvements have been made, when we return to this report as part of our follow-up activity in the new year. I want to know if changes to the programme are making a difference on the ground for the beneficiaries and how the FCO has continued to respond to the challenges being thrown at them.

I am also aware that a full evaluation of the Arab Partnership will be starting soon. I hope that that assessment takes into account the findings of our report and ensures that its findings are adopted into the programme to help it to continue to be both relevant and realistic in its activities and objectives, to bring real and lasting benefits to ordinary citizens.

Thank you.

Sign up to our newsletter to receive notifications of our latest news and reports

ICAI will use your personal data only to contact you about our work via email(Required)
You can find more information in our Privacy notice. Please check your Junk folder for a verification email to confirm your subscription.