Peer reviews of DAC members

Ireland (1999), Development Co-operation Review


Summary and Conclusions


Irish Aid today sets high standards for the official aid programme. The programme is growing and is expected to continue to do so, as a reflection of Ireland's commitment to reducing poverty in developing countries, and of Ireland's place in the world. Ireland's potential for further growth in aid is supported by a strong economic performance, coupled with solid political and public support for development co-operation in general. Ireland's experience as a recipient of Structural and Cohesion Funds from the European Union (EU) has demonstrated to the Irish that aid can work.

In 1999 Irish Aid celebrates the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the official aid programme. After six years of impressive growth in volume and improvement in quality, most of the increase in aid in 1999 is being used for debt relief measures, EU contributions, emergency humanitarian assistance and support for refugees in Ireland, rather than for allocations for the long-term development programmes administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs. Political commitments on aid allocations undertaken by the Minister of Finance mean that increases in the Department of Foreign Affairs' part of the programme are now expected in 2000 and 2001.

Two main issues confront the Irish Aid programme: how best to grow and how best to manage that growth. These are clearly issues which Ireland needs to consider and resolve itself but the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) can draw on its collective experience to contribute to Ireland's reflections on these issues. A starting point, from experience elsewhere, is that Irish Aid should maintain and enhance the focused nature of the programme which is now one of its major strengths.

A strong policy basis

Ireland sees development co-operation as an integral part of its foreign relations and has built up a strong policy basis which serves as a guiding strategy for the Irish Aid programme. This policy basis draws on the long Irish tradition of direct contacts with developing countries, in particular through missionary activities and the work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). At the same time, the Irish programme is a good reflection of current international policy orientations aimed at eradicating poverty and promoting sustainable people-centred development in partnership with developing countries. Irish Aid's policies were fleshed out in Irish Aid: Consolidation and Growth – A Strategy Plan (July 1993) and were further developed in the government's 1996 White Paper on Foreign Policy Challenges and Opportunities Abroad. They are implemented with the guidance provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs' annual strategy statements.

Ireland has worked out good systems for promoting coherence in its policies which impact on developing countries, as well as among its various channels for delivering aid. The DAC encourages Ireland to pursue its leadership in this area.

The mission of Irish Aid is to contribute to Ireland's broader efforts to achieve the overall goals of international peace, security and a just and stable global economic system. Recognising that development can only take place when local people are fully involved through a democratic and inclusive process, Irish Aid is supporting decentralisation and local government structures in many parts of its programme.

Ireland's aid programme is consistent with the orientations agreed upon by DAC Members in 1996 in Shaping the 21st Century Strategy: The Contribution of Development Co-operation:

  • Ireland is expanding its resources for development co-operation.

  • The programme has a poverty reduction focus, concentrating not just on least-developed countries but on poor regions within those countries, in a partnership approach.

  • Irish Aid is oriented towards the social sector and, increasingly, towards support for basic health and basic education, although the focus could be sharpened.

  • Efforts are being made to mainstream gender concerns throughout the programme.

  • Environmental sustainability is being more systematically addressed and additional resources have been provided to support activities in the environment area.

  • Human rights and democratisation activities are integrated into priority country programmes while in other countries specific actions are funded through a special fund.

Putting partnerships into practice

Irish Aid is a strong performer in putting a partnerships approach into practice, especially in the six least-developed countries in sub-Saharan Africa where the bilateral programme is concentrated: Ethiopia, Lesotho, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. Irish Aid recognises the need for developing country (and local) ownership of the aid process, and carries out its programmes in partnership with recipient governments and people, and in line with their priorities. While continuing to target its assistance at local or district level through its area-based programmes, Irish Aid is becoming more involved at the national level, through programme aid and support for selected sector-wide approaches. As a small donor, Irish Aid does its full part to co-operate and co-ordinate with other donors in its areas of concentration to enhance the collective impact of aid programmes. In its priority countries, Irish Aid has the potential to play a more significant role in co-ordination activities at the national level to share with other donors the benefit of its experience.

Ireland's partnership approach was apparent during a field visit to Uganda in preparation for this review. Ireland has been implementing an area-based programme in the District of Kibaale since 1995. In this district, Ireland works through local structures, building local capacity and institutions in support of locally-defined priorities. Taking a flexible approach has paid off by helping to establish a strong development partnership and laying the foundations for subsequent work. At the same time, Irish Aid works to support the national poverty reduction strategy as well as Ugandan-led work on sector-wide programmes in health and education.

Ireland's growing aid programme

Successive government commitments during the 1990s to expand Ireland's official development assistance (ODA) have had the goal of bringing Ireland's aid performance in line with that of its European partners and, ultimately, meet the United Nations (UN) target for ODA of 0.7 per cent of gross national product (GNP). In its Programme for Partnership Government, the coalition government formed after elections in 1992 pledged to increase Ireland's ODA to 0.40 per cent of GNP by 1997. The present Irish government's Action Plan for the Millennium includes the commitment to increase allocations for ODA to 0.45 per cent of GNP by 2002.

These commitments have resulted in steady and substantial increases in the volume of Irish ODA, although the stated ODA/GNP objectives have not yet been achieved. Between 1992 and 1998, Irish ODA trebled, rising from $70 million (Ir£ 40 million) to a provisional $199 million (Ir£ 140 million), while performance in relation to a growing GNP almost doubled, rising from 0.16 per cent to 0.30 per cent, and is projected to reach 0.35 per cent in 1999. Starting from a low base, the main official programme administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs' Development Co-operation Division increased more than fourfold.

The last DAC review and the present one have traced the impressive process through which Irish Aid has managed to accomplish such volume increases, while simultaneously strengthening the quality and operating professionalism of the programme. By any comparative standard, this record of successfully combining volume growth with improving quality would unquestionably justify further increases in Irish aid. The growth to date has had to be arranged, however, without the necessary strengthening of staffing levels and administrative systems for the Development Co-operation Division. DAC comparative experience suggests that the division's capacity to manage the programme is at this stage stretched, dependent on a few key individuals and thus highly vulnerable. This review has thus ranked these organisational and staffing requirements as key for the Irish authorities.

Following Ireland's entry into the European Economic and Monetary Union on 1 January 1999, and the fixing of official interest rates in Ireland by the European Central Bank, the Irish government has focussed on restricting public expenditures to contain inflationary pressures. Budget allocations in 1999 for long-term development programmes were thus almost unchanged from their 1998 level. However, a Cabinet-level agreement was worked out with a commitment to increase the department's aid allocation from Ir£110 million (140 million euro) in 1999 to at least Ir£136 million (173 million euro) in 2000 and Ir£159 million (202 million euro) in 2001. This provides Irish Aid, for the first time, with a firm multi-annual budget which offers the potential to improve management of the programme, assuming that the issue of management resources is also met.

Organisational structure of Ireland's aid programme

Two major and three smaller organisations, all under the responsibility of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, are associated with the delivery of Ireland's ODA:

  • The Development Co-operation Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs plays the central role in managing and co-ordinating Ireland's development co-operation. It administers six priority country programmes, projects in "other bilateral" countries and the NGO Schemes and special funds. It is also responsible for Ireland's multilateral assistance through the EU development programmes and voluntary contributions to UN development and relief agencies and funds.

  • The Agency for Personal Service Overseas (APSO) is an independent, state-sponsored body which promotes temporary volunteer service in developing countries, both directly and through co-funding with NGOs. APSO's programme is concentrated in 16 priority countries, in Africa, Central America and now Cambodia. In 1998, APSO funded 1 261 development workers in 84 countries, on both short- and long-term assignments.

  • The Irish Council for Overseas Students assists with the administration of Irish Aid's Fellowship Programme which provides tertiary scholarships and support services for people from developing countries, usually for study in Ireland.

  • The National Committee for Development Education (NCDE) is a consultative body which encourages and supports development education in all sectors of Irish society.

  • The Refugee Agency is a non-statutory body which co-ordinates the admission, reception and resettlement of programme refugees admitted to Ireland, with some parts of its budget being claimed as ODA.

Eight other government departments are involved in Ireland's national effort in support of development co-operation. The Department of Finance has primary responsibility for Ireland's relations with the World Bank Group, including the International Development Association (IDA), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Other departments –- including those of Agriculture and Food; Health and Children; Enterprise, Trade and Development; and Environment and Local Government -- also contribute through their participation in and funding for relevant multilateral agencies.

Partly due to the relatively small size of Ireland's government and aid programme, informal co-ordination between these various departments can still work effectively, enabling Ireland to achieve a good degree of coherence in most of its policies towards developing countries. At a more formal level, mechanisms exist for collaboration on the implementation of bilateral and multilateral programmes, while co-ordination with other agencies and channels remains more informal.

An objective stated in Promoting Ireland's Interests: Strategy Statement of the Department of Foreign Affairs 1998-2000 is to strengthen the management of Irish Aid by increasing the coherence and synergies between the various organisations involved in the delivery of Irish Aid. It appears that much can be done to achieve this objective. Integration of APSO with the main programme managed by the Development Co-operation Division is one option which could be explored. As a minimum, closer co-ordination between APSO and the Department of Foreign Affairs is needed, especially in Lesotho, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia which are priority countries for both programmes.

In 1999 as Ireland celebrates the 25th anniversary of its official aid programme, a special statement of national commitment to promoting development and reducing poverty in developing countries as priority goals for all government policy could strengthen awareness of what has been achieved and help consolidate public and political support for further challenges.

How best to grow

The prospect for growth in the Irish Aid budget is particularly welcome since Ireland, like other donors, is expected to need to contribute to debt relief and to emerging demands for major relief and reconstruction programmes. It will be a great advantage if Ireland is enabled to respond to such demands without diverting resources from its long-term development programmes. Building on its existing strengths, Irish Aid has several options for channelling additional ODA funding. These include:

  • Intensifying existing priority country programmes.

  • Launching new priority country programmes.

  • Starting different types of bilateral activities.

  • Increasing funding for NGO Schemes and special funds.

  • Expanding contributions to multilateral agencies.

Various combinations of these options could be used. However, if Ireland is to maintain its clear strategic objectives and its performance in implementing them, decisions should be based on development criteria and the scope for Irish impacts on poverty reduction. Drawing on lessons of other DAC programmes that have grown quickly, Irish Aid should not become dispersed, nor overlook the staffing and management demands entailed by different options for expansion.

Irish Aid: Consolidation and Growth provided excellent guidance for how Ireland's aid programme should expand during the period 1993 to 1997. This was backed by the strong political commitment contained in the Programme for a Partnership Government. To steer growth in the programme up to 2002 and beyond, Ireland could usefully consider producing a written implementation programme by up-dating Irish Aid: Consolidation and Growth, spelling out how further expansion in Irish Aid will be achieved.

Intensifying existing priority country programmes

One important option is to invest more in Irish Aid's six priority country programmes where local circumstances allow. These programmes absorbed 29 per cent of total ODA in 1997 but Ireland is still a small donor in these countries -– in 1997, Irish ODA ranged from 0.6 per cent of total receipts from all sources in Mozambique to 5.3 per cent in Lesotho. There is thus clearly room for Ireland to build on its strong base and become a less marginal actor in these countries. Some of the trends already underway in the priority country programmes –- growth and new activities in sectoral and programme aid -– could lead to an expansion, intensification of the benefits of country concentration and higher quality. Nevertheless, it should not be assumed that these trends will automatically lead to rapid expansion of disbursements.

Launching new priority country programmes

Another option for Ireland is to consider starting priority country programmes in new countries. However, there are no strong imperatives for Ireland to pursue these dispersion options that might exist for other donors, for example for historical, geographic or commercial reasons. This freedom to concentrate is a considerable and enviable advantage for the Irish programme. If it wishes to maintain its special strengths, and avoid some common pitfalls, Irish Aid should consequently evaluate carefully even a modest extension of the programme to new countries based on the expectation of additional resources being available over the next two years.

Starting different types of bilateral activities

Irish Aid's priority countries are located in Eastern and Southern Africa. This gives Ireland a good basis for developing regional programmes in these areas and providing support for regional institutions, such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Conceivably, Ireland could intensify its programmes in other countries in these regions where it already has some contacts, familiarity and experience, such as Eritrea, Malawi, Namibia, Rwanda and Zimbabwe. As has been done in Nigeria and South Africa, upgrading the programmes in these countries need not necessarily imply establishing full priority country programmes.

Technical assistance from Ireland related to its experience with successfully attracting foreign direct investment and managing well external financing for development purposes (Structural and Cohesion Funds from the EU) might possibly be useful to a good number of developing countries.

Increasing funding for NGO Schemes and special funds

Ireland's national effort includes the continuing work of Irish NGOs, some with strong international reputations and high profiles at home. By DAC standards, direct support for NGO activities and support through NGOs already absorbs a relatively large share of the Irish government's aid spending (in total, nearly one quarter of Ireland's ODA in 1997). Moreover, Irish NGOs are generously supported by the Irish public and receive funding from other sources, such as the EU and United Nations agencies. Therefore, the option of increasing the amount of aid channelled through NGOs would not appear to be an obvious choice for disbursing substantial amounts of additional funds.

Many observers, including NGOs themselves, are sceptical about large increases in funding levels, as it is doubtful whether Irish NGOs could expand their programmes more than marginally, at least in the short-term, and maintain quality in their activities. Irish Aid is already funding the majority of applications it receives for its NGO Co-Financing Scheme and so it is not apparent that a sufficient flow of high quality projects currently exists to justify additional funding. Additional funding channelled through NGOs could, however, be directed towards indigenous organisations in developing countries, such as by expanding the In-Country Micro Project Scheme, especially in Irish Aid's priority and "other bilateral" countries. There would also be merit in reinforcing the development potential in these "other bilateral" programmes by expanding activities through the Human Rights and Democratisation Programme in these countries.

Expanding contributions to multilateral agencies

In addition to Ireland's assessed contributions to multilateral agencies, its voluntary contributions have increased fourfold since 1992. Their allocation in 1997 amounted to 6 per cent of ODA. Ireland has a lively and active engagement multilaterally and provides voluntary contributions to an increasingly large number of UN agencies –- some 39 agencies in 1999 -- although most support continues to be directed to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

An option for channelling additional aid funds is to adopt a more selective and targeted approach to increasing voluntary contributions to multilateral agencies which reinforce Irish Aid's policy objectives, in particular its poverty reduction focus. As in its priority countries, Ireland might benefit from becoming less of a marginal player in some of the multilateral agencies it supports.

There would now appear to be a strong case for Ireland to join the African Development Bank (AfDB) and this is under consideration. The budget is available and most analyses confirm that the Bank's reforms and programme directions merit support. Membership would be another means for Ireland to maintain and enhance the focussed nature of its programme and to bring its experience from working in some of the poorest countries in Africa to discussions at the Bank. Joining the AfDB would also have the indirect benefit of opening up to Irish firms the possibility of tendering for AfDB projects and procurement.

Debt relief

The issue of contributing to the relief of the debt burden of developing countries has been the subject of lively debate in Ireland. Like other DAC Members, Ireland has acknowledged that, for a number of highly-indebted poor countries, successful development co-operation will also depend upon concerted international action to alleviate an unsustainable debt burden.

All Irish ODA is in grant form and developing countries have no outstanding official debts to Ireland. Nonetheless, Ireland has adopted a policy advocating debt relief and in September 1998 announced its willingness to participate in debt relief measures, agreeing to provide a total of Ir£ 31.5 million (40.0 million euro) over 12 years to assist the most heavily-indebted poor countries (HIPC). From this package of bilateral and multilateral measures, Ir£ 17.0 million (21.6 million euro) is being disbursed in 1999, 11 per cent of aid allocations for this year. Ireland is also looking carefully at current international initiatives aimed at deepening and broadening the scope of the HIPC initiative and speeding up disbursements. While these debt relief efforts will contribute to resolving an urgent problem in the short term, they should not be expected to be a continuing growth area for the Irish Aid programme.

How best to manage growth in the aid programme

Managing growth in aid volume

Many DAC Members have seen their aid programmes grow, or decline, rapidly. One lesson that can be drawn from these experiences is that growth which is too rapid or too erratic is destabilising for the long-term efforts of an aid agency and can jeopardise aid quality and effectiveness, and thus the value of the aid programme. Managing a sustained and significant increase in aid well requires setting an orderly growth path, with a clear target, and milestones along the way. A donor should also ensure that an expanding programme continues to draw upon and reinforce its comparative advantages and experience, along with its staffing and organisation.

Managing increased aid volume

While there are clearly competing demands for limited public resources in Ireland, the internationally-recognised quality of Ireland's aid programme now justifies a strong claim for continued increases in funding. The Minister of Finance's commitment to increase allocations for the Department of Foreign Affairs provides Irish Aid with an orderly growth path for 2000 and 2001. The Irish government also remains committed to reaching a GNP target of 0.45 per cent in 2002 for the ODA programme as a whole. Following the budget discussions in 1998, it will be important for the longer-term growth path and milestones to be clarified as much as possible.

Human resources

The number and skill mix of staff currently available to manage the Irish Aid programme as well as staffing regulations are widely seen as inadequate. They must be reinforced and changed if Ireland's contribution to development co-operation is to be maintained and further enhanced. It is critical that the review commissioned in 1999 of the adequacy of the Department of Foreign Affairs' existing management resources results in the provision of the additional staff which Irish Aid needs.

To manage Irish Aid's growing programme, the Development Co-operation Division has had to improvise and patch together temporary ways of reinforcing staff capacities, in Dublin and in the field, within complex government staffing regulations. With a total staff of 82 people in 1999, the division is stretched and its structure fragile. Constraints on staff mobility and administrative obstacles limit the division's capacity to manage and deploy its staff optimally and to offer career possibilities for all its staff. The division and embassies in priority countries are managed by career diplomats, on rotations of two-to-four years' duration. In Dublin, these people are supported by general service staff, mainly in administrative and support positions, and specialists on two-year renewable contracts. Neither of these latter groups can serve overseas. In priority countries, the programmes are administered by programme officers, on two-year renewable contracts for up to a maximum of five years in any one country, who cannot be redeployed to Dublin. In Irish Aid's structure, only diplomatic staff at the first secretary level can serve both in Dublin and in the field. The Irish Aid system is thus vulnerable as within just a few years many, and potentially all, of Irish Aid's current staff will have moved on or been redeployed to another part of the department. Institutional memory and operational expertise will be lost in this process.

If the current organisational structure is maintained, several changes could be considered to improve performance. One suggestion is to structure a development specialisation within the diplomatic stream which could lead to the highest positions within the Department of Foreign Affairs. This would involve ensuring that most levels of diplomatic staff are represented both in Dublin and in the field. Representation in some of the priority countries could be up-graded to full ambassador status or an ambassador with regional responsibilities for development co-operation could be placed in the field. Where ambassadors are stationed in developing countries, they should be supported by junior diplomats, in programme administration roles.

Creating a core-group of competent, specialised contract staff is crucial for Irish Aid. For contract staff, the present two-year duration appears unnecessarily cautious and Irish Aid would improve staff motivation and commitment through longer contracts, particularly for those with proven capacity. More general selection criteria and job descriptions could be used to recruit contract staff, enabling those who so wished to be subsequently redeployed, thus increasing interchange between Dublin and the field. The situation of programme officers merits particular attention. Programme officers play a pivotal role in the management of Irish Aid's programmes in the field. Several are now reaching their five-year limit. Current policy would require their contracts not be renewed, if it is not possible to transfer them to another posting, which would be detrimental.

Possible organisational options for Ireland's aid programme

For the short- to medium-term, through a period of consolidation, reinforcing the existing organisation by all means described above would seem to be the preferable option.

In the longer-term, planning and assessment can be carried out on other possible options, of which three seem most plausible, on the basis of comparable experience:

  • maintain the improved status quo arrangements outlined above;

  • establish an independent implementing agency for the bilateral programme; or

  • create a fully-integrated, geographically-based Department of Foreign Affairs.

Establishing an independent implementing agency

This option is probably the most appealing from an operational point of view. The Department of Foreign Affairs would maintain overall political responsibility for the programme as a whole, as well as specific responsibility for multilateral assistance, bilateral aid policy and secretariat and liaison functions for associated bodies, such as the Irish Aid Advisory Committee. An implementing agency could be established as an independent state-sponsored body, which would allow greater flexibility in staffing matters while offering staff greater employment stability and improved career prospects.

Creating an integrated Department of Foreign Affairs

Another option might be to "de-compartmentalise" development co-operation within the Department of Foreign Affairs by creating integrated regional/country desks to take responsibility for all aspects of Ireland's bilateral relations: foreign policy, trade and, in the case of relations with developing countries, development co-operation. This has been done in some other DAC Member countries. It would not appear, however, to be a preferable option in view of the size of Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs and the dilution of aid experience this option would entail.

Evaluation and aid effectiveness

Irish Aid's Evaluation and Audit Unit has been separated from the specialist programme support activities and now reports directly to the head of the Development Co-operation Division. Despite its small size, the unit is active, carrying out evaluations of individual projects, country programmes and particular sectors as well as participating in joint donor exercises and working with associated Irish Aid bodies, such as APSO. Evaluations are, in principle, available to the public although details of evaluations undertaken are not well known. Starting with 1998, the list of evaluations carried out each year is published in the Irish Aid annual report and the executive summaries of completed evaluations will be available on Irish Aid's Internet site, thus enhancing public accountability.

The value of ex post evaluations is diminished when staff turnover is rapid, as those people most associated with the project evaluated will have moved on. It is more important, therefore, for Irish Aid to promote a culture of evaluation whereby operational staff are continuously involved in monitoring performance and conducting self-evaluations of programmes and projects. The field visit to Uganda found that Irish Aid could still do more to engender a culture of evaluation and a focus on monitoring and results. Moreover, Ireland's present evaluation plan currently focuses on sector and thematic evaluations, and not on area-based programmes. The evaluation of area-based programmes should be given greater emphasis.

Summary of main recommendations

  • A written implementation programme up-dating Irish Aid: Consolidation and Growth would give clear direction for future growth in the aid programme.

  • To mark Irish Aid's 25th anniversary, Ireland should renew its commitment to promoting development and reducing poverty as priority goals for all government policy.

  • Decisions on expansion of the programme should be based on development criteria and the scope for Irish impacts on poverty reduction.

  • Irish Aid should maintain and enhance its focused nature. Even a modest extension in the number of priority countries should be evaluated carefully.

  • Ireland should pursue its consideration of joining the African Development Bank.

  • Staffing, skill mixes and career perspectives must be reinforced and changed if Ireland's contribution to development co-operation is to be maintained and further enhanced.

  • Reinforcing existing organisational structures is preferable in the short-term. In the longer-term, establishing an independent implementing agency is an appealing option from an operational point of view.

  • Irish Aid could do more to engender a culture of evaluation and a focus on monitoring and results. The evaluation of area-based programmes should be given greater emphasis.