Mark Lowcock: The man with the plan

18 Dec 12
For Mark Lowcock, development is more than just a job — it’s a passion. Here, he tells Dave Read about life heading up the UK’s Department for International Development

By Dave Read | 18 December 2012

For Mark Lowcock, development is more than just a job — it’s a passion. Here, he tells Dave Read about life heading up the UK’s Department for International Development

Mark Lowcock stands out from the crowd at the regular Wednesday morning meetings of the UK’s top civil servants. Not only has he spent his entire public service career working in the same department, but he is also a qualified accountant — a very handy qualification in this age of austerity. But that’s not all. Unlike his fellow Permanent Secretaries, he is leading a department that in recent years, has seen its budget rise — rather than fall.

Quite something given that the UK’s Coalition Government is currently implementing the most extensive spending cuts in a generation. Under the current spending settlement, the Department for International Development’s (DFID) funding will increase from £8.1b in 2011–12 to £10.5b in 2014–15. But that’s not to say the extra cash is not without its burdens. “You need to manage the costs and also focus on the value of the investment,” says Lowcock. “Even if we didn’t have to justify to the hard-pressed taxpayer why we need a budget our size in the middle of a difficult period for the country — it would be right for us to be focusing on value for money.”

The fact that DFID is benefiting from a generous spending package at the same time as other ministries are adapting to sweeping cutbacks has drawn criticism from some, in both politics and the media. But Lowcock makes a spirited defense. “This is something that all political parties at the last election were committed to,” he points out. “It’s also in our interests as a country, which is a relatively small open trading economy, to promote prosperity in other places. A lot of the challenges we have in the UK have an international dimension to them. I do think the Prime Minister sees it as a win-win — it’s morally right and is also in our own national interests.”

History lesson

Prior to taking up his Permanent Secretary role in June 2011, Lowcock fulfilled a number of senior positions across DFID, including serving as the department’s Director for Finance and Corporate Performance, a role that saw him make full use of his accountancy qualifications. Few, if any, of his peers in government have a similar level of financial experience and it is clear he believes a thorough understanding of finance is invaluable. “The Government remains committed to development,” says Lowcock. “They have set the budget and to be honest I’m less interested in the number — I’m more interested in making sure we get value and making sure we are getting the results. We are focusing on the results — this is what we’re driven by.”

This spotlight on results is a relatively new phenomenon, it transpires. The UK Government first began development programs in 1961 and, at that stage, says Lowcock, assistance was largely about raising capital to invest in infrastructure, and using that as the basis for growth in the poorer world.

“Development assistance in the 1960s and 1970s was when we built roads and invested in infrastructure,” he says. “There was then a period — particularly coming out of the oil shocks in the mid-1970s — when lots of developing countries found that their terms of trade had collapsed, export prices plummeted and a big structural adjustment was needed. This meant development assistance needed to be about helping with the costs of adjustment and improving policy-making. A big focus was on institutional and human capital — one of the areas that had been historically underinvested in was skills. They also needed capable institutions to run a market economy and safeguard the rule of law — the sort of thing we take for granted in the developed world.”

Having previously been the Overseas Development Administration (ODA), a functional wing of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, DFID was set up in 1997 as a separate government department with its own Cabinet Minister. This decade, according to Lowcock, saw development become closely aligned with macro-trends such as globalization. “We published a white paper in 2001 about how development assistance and organizations like DFID help developing countries be integrated into the global economy — and I think we’re still in this phase.”

Today, his department is now focusing on 28 core countries — mainly in Africa and West and South Asia. “Singapore, Malasyia and Thailand all used to be clients of ours and have moved up,” he says. “So the geographical focus has changed and some of the issues have evolved. The story of DFID has been about keeping up with change and, at times like at the moment, setting the agenda. Internationally, lots of people for the last 10 years have looked to the UK as leaders on international development. Things like results, evidence and value for money are the talk of the international development scene and the UK has led the way.”

A life in Development

Lowcock’s passion for development work, and the progress that has resulted from programs around the world, comes through loud and clear; here is a man who does not regret his choice of career. “It’s been absolutely fantastic and I’ve been incredibly lucky,” he says. “I’ve always had interesting jobs and moved on through the system. We have a big and diverse portfolio. It has changed a lot over recent years and I’ve seen a lot of it having traveled around the world. It is humbling to see how people’s lives have been improved by the work of my colleagues.”

He goes on to cite evidence to back up his assertion that development has, over the decades, been a highly successful endeavor. “I turned 50 earlier this year and on my departmental blog I did a piece about the last 50 years of development. Over that period, global life expectancy has grown from 47 to 67 — which is my candidate for the greatest-ever global achievement. Since 1990, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has halved, there has been a massive reduction in the numbers of children out of school and infant mortality has plummeted. Development assistance has contributed significantly to that. Obviously, we can still do better — and that motivates us — but basically, aid for development is a successful enterprise and it is a privilege to work on it.”

As part of its drive to maximize its impact and the value for money of its programs, DFID operates not in isolation but instead with a wide variety of partners. “Some things we do through governments in emerging countries, some through organizations like the World Bank. We do a lot through private sector contractors and partners. And then we do a lot with NGOs.”

When it comes to their work with the private sector, Lowcock says he has been struck by how many organizations are now focusing on development. “One thing that they say to me is young people who they are competing to hire at graduate entry level really want to do something that has a worthwhile purpose as well as a commercial motivation — and international development is a way to attract people. Working on these issues is interesting to people — they can learn new skills and operate in different environments — so it contributes to their professional development as well.”

But no matter whom the partner, some common approaches are prevalent. “We try and be really clear about our results, we try to make sure we align everybody’s interests and everybody is incentivized to deliver the same outcome. DFID is a commissioning organization of 2,500 people but we manage very large programs in partnerships. The thing we have to be good at is managing those relationships and partnerships to deliver results.”

Making aid work better

One of the many priorities of DFID and its partners continues to be making development programs as effective as possible. Austerity has led to a stronger focus on ensuring that such assistance is achieving the desired impact, and that limited resources are being used in the most efficient way to solve critical challenges. However, a repeatable formula for successful intervention remains elusive.

Partly, Lowcock believes, this is because all countries are different — from societies to culture to economies. But whatever the country, there are also some fundamental issues that need to be addressed. “You need to establish a market economy, you need to create the rule of law and people need freedom to express themselves,” he says.

“These are the basic things that I personally think any society needs in order to prosper. Each country is at a different place in its development journey. We have 28 country offices, where most of our people work and live. Our starting point is to make sure we understand the local context. We look to our international experience and consider whether programs that have worked really well elsewhere could be replicated in our partner countries.

“I also think that building the basic institutions of the state is important. I worked a lot in the 1990s on tax administration in Africa in particular. And on other institutions like the legal system, public accounts committees, finance ministries and central banks. I think all of these are really important. There is no magic bullet to development but having some basic institutions is pretty fundamental.”

Looking to the future

Whether he is traveling the world or working from his office in London, Lowcock says his number one priority is delivering on the Coalition Government’s development agenda. “Most of the people who work here spend all their time focused on these results, but we’re also starting to look at beyond 2015,” he says. “The Prime Minister has been asked and has agreed to co-chair a UN panel that will look at what should replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Over the next nine months he, with others, will be working to provide advice to the Secretary General and General Assembly of the UN as to what the successor arrangements should be. It’s an important undertaking as we need to come up with a replacement with the same degree of traction and buy-in.”

Lowcock will naturally be taking a keen interest in what these replacements will be. His advice? “I think it’s important there is discussion about the generic building blocks for development — open societies, open economies, property rights, rule of law and so on. I think we also need a framework that has the clarity and simplicity and focus of the MDGs — these were things people relate to. So it is important we have a framework that resonates.”

And as for his own future plans, Lowcock isn’t looking too far into the future. For starters, a recent government reshuffle means he has a new Cabinet Minister to get to know and there is little chance of the in-tray on his desk being empty any time soon. “In a few years time, it will be sensible to hand over but not just yet,” he says. “I love the public service and would be happy to take on another public service role. But maybe I’ll do something completely different. Anyway, that’s for the future: right now I’m having a ball in this job.”

Dave Read is Global International Development Leader at Ernst & Young.

This article first appeared in the December issue of Ernst & Young's Dynamics magazine.

Did you enjoy this article?

Related articles

Have your say


CIPFA latest

Most popular

Related jobs

Most commented

Events & webinars