In recent years, one Whitehall department has punched above its weight in media attention, relative to its yearly budget. Of a
£732 billion pie in 2014, the Department for International Development is set to receive a total of £10.3 billion. This amount represents the Government’s fulfilment of its pledge to meet the 0.7% GNI (Gross National Income) to InternationalDevelopment by 2015, set out by the Millennium Development Goals. To date, the only other countries to do so have been: Denmark; Norway; Luxembourg; United Arab Emirates and Netherlands (however, for 2013, the Netherlands’ contribution dropped to 0.67%). A key reason the UK was able to hit this milestone was because of a 27.8% increase in department funding from the government, compared to 2012. This is a k ey reason for DFID’s high profile: its increase in budget was amid cuts in nearly all other major departments.
There are other factors contributing to its ‘infamy’. In 2010, it transpired that aid was still going to the likes of Russia, South Africa and China. In 2011, the UK sent £284 million to India, the same year, the Indian Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, refereed to the money as “a peanut in our total development expenditure”.
However, the controversy I am most intrigued by is that of ICS (International Citizens Service), which cost £18million in its first eighteen months – a slither of government spending. ICS was announced by the Prime Minster in 2010, “to give thousands of our young people, those who otherwise couldn’t afford it, the chance to see the world and serve others”. It is a volunteering program that is (generally) 90% funded by the government. At its inception, David Cameron claimed that his ambition for the scheme was for it to achieve what the American Peace Corps did, in latter half of the twentieth century; it “inspired a generation of young people to act”.
Early stages of the ICS program were criticised for being somewhat of a ‘gap year jolly’, with snippets of participants’ journals depicting idyllic panoramic views from hammocks on balconies after a hard day spent making the local cakes, sunbathing and snorkelling. Is it like that now? Well, for full disclosure, I recently returned from an ICS program with Raleigh International in Nicaragua. The raison d’etre of the Raleigh programs in Nicaragua was for infrastructure improvements through building eco-toilets, eco ovens, water filters etc. Before volunteering I had worked as a building labourer, a carpenter, a street fundraiser, now for a large multi-national corporation. None of these come close, not just to how hard I pushed myself, but to how much was expected of me! The physical work was unlike anything I have ever encountered: Six days a week we dug huge holes in mountainous regions, with wrecking bars being used days on end to smash and extract rocks. I was not at all fat before (just shy of thirteen stone, average height), but lost two stone in four weeks. I saw no hint of a gap-year jolly. Which is not to say that there weren’t some fabulous moments spend by a river on our one day-a-week off, but the work was incredible.
My experience then would contradict previous media reports of these programs: I can categorically say I have never worked harder in my life! But people appear woefully unclear as to exactly what ICS sets out to achieve…We can forget the stated objectives of any such programs, like companies who broadcast their ‘values’, this tends to be how they would like to be perceived as opposed to how things actually are. The program I participated in appeared to have three clear objectives: 1) Facilitate a two-way cultural understanding 2) Equip volunteers with ‘employability’ skills. 3) Improve livelihoods of benefactors of the volunteering projects. The question is… were these achieved?
On the First front… ‘cultural understanding’. The format of the program is established to necessitate just this. Generally speaking, there was a team of 12-14: comprised of as close to: half British; half Nicaraguan volunteers as possible. There were two leaders, one from each nationality, who, while also volunteers, tended to be a little older, in most cases bilingual and who were responsible for organisation and general pastoral care of the team. In most cases, one British and one Nicaraguan volunteer would live with a host family together. The host family in question were benefactors of the infrastructure work, but were also given money for food etc. This intimate cross-cultural mix meant that appreciation and understanding fo the opposite culture was an inevitability.
Secondly, ‘equipped with skills’… The age range was between eighteen and twenty-five for a volunteer and skillsets varied a huge amount. Working in an unfamiliar situation, doing work that you have never done before in a team of people you do not know, speaking a mixture of languages, living with a rural and poor family: all sorts of different challenges are faced. Furthermore, the way Raleigh established the format was for a pair to be ‘team leaders’ for at least a week: create a working schedule and itinerary; undertake the responsibility of motivating and disciplining the team. This satisfies the leadership experience that many employers look for. But perhaps more importantly the process builds a huge amount of resilience, as you are living a truly challenging and alien way of life.
Finally did the project improve the livelihoods of the benefactors? The answer must be ‘Yes’. The benefactors had opted for these improvements to be made to their houses (eco ovens, eco toilets, etc.). Therefore we were not like missionaries projecting our visions of ‘better’ onto these communities, they requested these improvements. In that case: if you want a shower in your house but you lack the means to do so, and I come and build you a shower (no matter the quality), an improvement has been made. Therefore, any improvement we made was a net gain for the benefactor.
However, given the nature of the scheme’s funding, the money is accountable. As with any spend, Return On Investment plays a key role. Is there a sufficient ROI of £8000/ British volunteer? I believe the answer changes depending on your perspective. Down the ‘Yes’ column is the British Taxpayer. That £8000 is invested in an individual who will return more enlightened to the problems that is faced by the world, having lived alongside them. That individual will have accrued language, team-based, leadership, and no doubt other skills around handling challenging situations. I postulate (and saw) that the attendees only have the freedom to pledge three months because they are either not yet going to University, they are in work that falls short of their ambitions, or they are unemployed. In the last case, these individuals are still a financial burden on the taxpayer through claiming benefits. This person upon returning is more confident and more employable. Throw into this the consideration that this comes out of DFID’s international aid budget: the UK then is still benefiting from the money that is sent overseas. From this perspective I think it is money incredibly well spend, particularly if it is targeted at those who would otherwise not have the means/ get the chance to have such an experience (perhaps disseminating the class and educational backgrounds of ICS volunteers is a topic for another day).
Where then is this not a good Return On Investment you may ask? The work that Raleigh does on ICS projects is infrastructure based. It is building work (low level – but physical and requiring for instance brick laying skills). £8000 is spent on an unskilled worker to bring about this infrastructure transformation. Now from a development perspective that is money extremely poorly invested… of my team of twelve, I was one of two with even remotely relevant experience (and I was not able to do a good deal of the work without guidance), not least because the techniques are different because of different tools and materials. However, I saw the incredible strength and appropriate skill of the native workers. That money, invested cleverly, could have brought jobs to a nation rife with unemployment and would have increased productivity several times over: as much I believe is beyond contestation.
Where does this leave ICS? I believe that the aggregate of £1million a month on such a scheme is money that is undeniably worth it. The level of cultural exposure is second only to doing something like this independently: not recommended in many of the areas ICS reaches! ICS casts shadows over the typical paid volunteering schemes, which are more centred on delivering a memorable time for the person who has paid a lot of money to participate.
However, while the scheme is undeniably worth it, I believe that if DFID really wanted to help local communities in this way, then leveraging unskilled workers is not the way to do it. One of my fellow volunteers, an English masters graduate pointed out that Raleigh International was trying to do too much, we could never focus on personally developing, culturally developing and carry out lasting infrastructure work… it was far to ambitious. In my opinion the last of this trinity suffered the most. I will always argue that ICS is a brilliant program, but billed to the wrong department… it is youth development that comes out of the pockets of the very countries the money is being sent to help.