CC LICENSE Rainforest

What’s the point of devolved international development programmes? Thoughts from Wales

Published: 12 September 2019

In their contribution to our series on devolution at twenty, Craig Owen and Susie Ventris-Field of the Welsh Centre for International Affairs reflect on the Welsh approach to international development.

Twenty years after Welsh devolution, and thirteen years on from the launch of the ‘Wales for Africa’ programme, Wales now has its first ever International Relations Minister – Eluned Morgan - tasked with developing an international strategy that looks beyond Brexit, to shape Wales’ global role in an increasingly parochial and uncertain world. 

There are some calls for Welsh Government to follow with a more strategic approach to international development. But what is the value of devolved international development interventions. What is the need, how much real impact can we offer… and for who?

Following the successful Make Poverty History Campaign in 2005, widespread community demand emerged across Wales for a distinctly Welsh approach to contributing towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for poverty reduction. The initiative was initially championed by the Welsh Civil Society MDGs Task Force but was adopted by the Welsh Government in 2006 in order to channel the energies of many thousands of ordinary people who wanted to do more than sign petitions: to be supported in giving their time, skills, energy and passion to build meaningful international relationships.

Wales has a long history of internationalism. Solidarity movements have existed over generations with communities as far afield as Somaliland (from Wales’ coal trading history, and long-settled diaspora), Lesotho (Dolen Cymru, founded in 1982, was the world’s first nation to nation twinning) and Uganda (where several charities have worked over 4 decades).

But the Welsh Government’s Wales for Africa programme, launched in 2006, brings both formal recognition of such efforts, and the opportunity to expand on these efforts in a formalised way.  The programme connects professionals in health, education and environmental sectors, and diaspora in Wales and Africa; and harnesses the power of community-based, collaborative civil society links. Rather than professional agencies or staff in country offices, projects take place through volunteers in direct contact with in-country local partners in domains including health, education, climate change, and water.

Wales for Africa catalyses huge amounts of community work in Wales, raising awareness and funds at a local level. Welsh Government funding has supported: capacity building; the coordination of Wales’ Fair Trade Movement, with Wales becoming the world’s first Fair Trade Nation in 2008; efforts to mitigate climate change, including the ‘Size of Wales project’ to help protect an area of rainforest the size of Wales; and volunteer placements for professions.

The Wales for Africa programme is not without its critics, in particular from those who argue that it should conform to typical western ‘aid programme’ models and approaches, such as DfID or USAID.

Without clear, standardised outcome measures or evaluation mechanisms, it is difficult to aggregate the achievements of the programme. Beyond Tree-planting initiatives, focus is scattered across a range of interventions, and the limited annual budget - about £600,000 -  is spread very thinly between many organisations, working across different parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Certainly, the whole of the budget could be spend on two water boreholes in South Sudan, or a couple of miles of road in Angola. That could indeed benefit many thousands of people, and satisfy the desire for focus. But would Wales be contributing its strengths? Against the many others playing on this stage, with vastly more resources and experience, it is difficult to see what the purpose of a devolved Welsh programme with such interventions might be.

Instead of looking to DFID and the international development community for comparators, perhaps we should instead look to the European and Scandinavian development agencies’ language of Development Cooperation and ‘Citizens Initiatives’ - where grassroots organisations are supported in the work they do with southern partners, and towards achieving the SDGs in their own countries.  

However, a commitment to do no harm must be central. Pathways to poor practice are usually paved with good intentions, and it is a fundamental duty - both of Welsh Government and internationalist civil society organisations – to take a strategic approach to developing the Wales for Africa programme into the future. We should not only mitigate against potential harms from inexperienced volunteerism - such as ‘white saviour complex’ or inappropriate local development interventions - but also safeguard the mutual benefits of development cooperation, global citizenship and international exchange.

Devolved government, working closely with civil society networks to celebrate and mainstream good practice, are uniquely well positioned to rise to these challenges in a way that large-scale development programmes often struggle.

Towards 2030: Building a Better World

There is an opportunity to align and greater define Wales for Africa’s contribution towards the Sustainable Development Goals internationally, whilst also celebrating how this internationalist spirit contributes towards Wales’ Wellbeing Goals and global citizenship domestically. 

Rather than shoehorning Wales for Africa to fit the language and approaches of large INGOs (International Organisations), Wales’ International Strategy needs to explicitly recognise and reap the benefits of a programme built from global citizenship, international volunteering and development cooperation - whilst continuing to act as a bridge for innovative organisations that want to, and can, make the transition to larger scale international development. Rather than looking to England, the EU or US for comparators, Wales would do well to compare notes with, learn from and perhaps even link with devolved actors and smaller nation programmes such as Flanders, the Aaland Islands, German Federal states or even New Zealand.

And of course, our neighbours in Scotland. Over the last decade, Wales has learnt a lot from Scottish groups such as NIDOS and the Scotland Malawi Partnership – and long may this Celtic collaboration continue and build, particularly in the context of Brexit.

At a time when the language of aid and international development – rightly or wrongly – interests fewer people, it is these localised interventions…

  • citizenship, volunteering and cooperation rooted in solidarity and friendship…
  • the visit from a Fair Trade producer to your town coffee shop…
  • messages of solidarity between communities when there is trouble…
  • the enthusiastic returning volunteer talking about their experience…

…that will achieve far more than London-centric media campaigns or political machinations ever could.

Ultimately, international development is about people. Policy, yes; practice, yes; but people are at the heart of human development. By investing in people to people links, devolved government can help put the heart back into internationalism; to inspire the aspirations of a new global generation, and at the same time to build a better world.


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