TV quiz shows in Ethiopia, Facebook lessons in Laos and Hamlet productions in Ecuador – in the mind of the general public, I suspect none of these items counts as a worthy destination for British taxpayer cash. In the wake of press revelations this week detailing the recipients of overseas aid, the Government seemed inclined to agree, swiftly launching an investigation.
It is uncomfortable timing, as pressure mounts on the Department for International Development to justify its now legally-guaranteed budget of 0.7 per cent of GDP. As scores of migrants die weekly crossing the Mediterranean and others pitch up in Calais camps, Michael Fallon has been pressing for aid money to be spent on preventing conflict in African nations. Sir Gerald Howarth’s success in the Private Member’s Bill ballot further turns the screws as he seeks to guarantee a two per cent GDP spend on the Ministry of Defence, in line with our NATO pledge. Meanwhile, £12bn of welfare cuts are being sketched out that will sorely test the notion that nearly the same amount should be annually earmarked for overseas aid (up by over a third since 2010).
All this adds up to ever more critical attention being paid to DfID and its work. However, we should see this as an opportunity, rather than a threat.
I have long been a supporter of our overseas aid policy for reasons I have set out before, but equally I believe the time has come for a broadening in the uses of the aid budget and a critical rethink of the way in which DfID operates. If the 0.7 per cent aid commitment is to command continued public support, we need to be wiser – and probably a little more candid and transparent – about how our money is being (and should be) spent.
Formally established as an independent department only in 1997, DfID was seen as a key component of the ‘ethical foreign policy’ set out by Robin Cook during the first ten days of the New Labour government. Overseas aid monies previously distributed from the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office budgets were centralised, leaving little financial autonomy for either major department of state on key international projects.
Instead, a new culture of ‘programming’ took hold in DfID that managed-out the potential for ‘inappropriate’ spending that could cause presentational problems to the government. Cautious mandarins became more risk-averse. DfID project money was routinely awarded to known international bodies such as the World Bank or Unicef, rather than smaller, nimbler UK organisations and businesses.
This helped to dodge any accusation of conflicts of interest. The Government would not be seen to promote corporate Britain abroad under the cloak of humanitarian assistance – but it also left those recognised brands to deal with any fall-out should questions be raised about the success of particular programmes. Indeed, these organisations very respectability tended to mute testing questions about the effectiveness and impact of British aid money. This shift went hand-in-hand with the emergence of increasingly professional bidders who learned to speak the language of DfID programmers in order to win contracts. The result was often ponderous, expensive and wasteful programming that removed the ability of the UK to act quickly and effectively when specific needs arose.
Sadly this culture remains today, with DfID programmers often overloaded with cash that is being increasingly bundled off to international bodies. This is not to suggest that the Department is not committed to providing good value or that our aid money is not typically spent effectively. However, DfID has become too process-driven, reducing our agility in the field and risking the benchmark of success for our development aid being the amount spent, rather than the added-value delivered. This approach also deters British organisations from being providers of assistance, even when many overseas countries are keen for UK firms to be actively involved in development programmes.
All this does not make the 0.7% commitment to overseas aid wrong. In fact the case for extending Britain’s reach in this field gets stronger each year as we are confronted domestically with problems whose roots start thousands of miles away. However, I question whether large parts of DfID’s budget should not now be devolved to the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence. This would enable and authorise those on the ground (whether in overseas embassies or military bases) to spend sensibly, carefully and locally against agreed objectives rather than via DfID’s programming process. The risk is that the degree of ‘inappropriate spending’ may rise as operatives test out ideas and providers, and then judge their practical impact on the job. But I reckon the costs of such seepage will likely be more than compensated by wiping out the various layers of programming bureaucracy.
Finally, and most importantly, we must start encouraging the UK to be the provider of services and partnerships, particularly when it is the stated provider of choice for the recipient country. For instance, if a developing African nation wishes the London Stock Exchange to help partner in the establishment of proper financial markets, they should be directed to the City of London, not the World Bank.
Ironically the one dog that did not bark during the recent General Election campaign was the long overdue debate on Britain’s place in the world. Even Ed Miliband’s brief and controversial foray at Chatham House on international affairs was overshadowed by his comments on the aftermath of the Libyan skirmish in 2011. In truth some of our foreign aid monies are already being spent on global security and intelligence projects. We are paying more than lip-service to community building and social cohesion in war-torn countries of the world alongside the more traditional aid programmes, centred on African as well as Asian and Caribbean Commonwealth nations.
However, I believe it is essential that we are more transparent in this very dangerous and uncertain world about the importance of integrating our foreign aid with military, diplomatic and trade commitments. Indeed, the time may be soon ripe for international security and social cohesion goals to be explicitly recognised by DfID funding in the years ahead. Few will have been unmoved by the appalling scenes in recent months on both the Mediterranean Sea and the Bay of Bengal as thousands of refugees from Libya, Bangladesh and Burma risk literally everything for a better life. The solution to combating trafficking networks is both humanitarian and military, and where better than for the UK to take a lead?
It would be helpful we were to communicate a broader range of benefits that come from our work abroad. In a globalised world, governments recognise that not all policy solutions are to be found at home. To prevent crime, to curb new waves of immigration, to stop the spread of disease, our efforts can be made more effective by concentrating on the source of an issue. Hunger relief and health programmes may be laudable in their own right, but British people want urgently to understand how DfID money benefits them personally. We should also as a matter of course communicate how strengthening our ties with developing countries will be of huge benefit in terms of our trade, energy and security interests.
During an era in which UK defence expenditure, and with it our projection of ‘hard power’, is in decline, we should recognise that our taking a lead in provision of overseas aid brings the nation tangible ‘soft power’ benefits.