Andrew Mitchell is a former International Development Secretary, and is MP for Sutton Coldfield.
Our aid and international development budget is unquestionably in Britain’s national interest. Above all it is an investment in our prosperity and security – enabling developing countries to climb out of poverty through growth, trade and investment, whilst bringing stability to some of the most volatile and dangerous parts of the world.
The economist Sir Paul Collier describes the idea of overseas aid spending as being of ‘mutual benefit’ to both donor and recipient – combining these national interest arguments with the moral imperative to help the world’s poorest.
Britain’s development commitments reflect both sides of this equation: our proud history of stepping up to support those most in need, and the advancement of British interests through an aid and development budget being deployed across government.
Despite the clear benefits to our country afforded by our aid commitment, this is not the primary reason the British public support international development. Recent analysis of centre-right voters’ perceptions of overseas aid indicates that support for aid lies in their pride that Britain never turns its back on those most in need, rather than because aid serves our national interest. The public primarily wants to know that Britain is doing its bit for the world’s poorest, and generations of generosity to charities working overseas and causes like Comic Relief show that we are willing to stump up as a country to fulfil this.
Ensuring aid delivers
However this big-heartedness is rightly matched by a robust public interrogation of aid. Taxpayers need to know that aid works and that their money is well spent.
Inevitably, aid is delivered in some of the most insecure and troubled parts of the world, which will always make guaranteeing impact and efficiency challenging. But we must always acknowledge where aid has been poorly delivered and ineffective.
That is why, as Secretary of State for International Development, I established the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) – an expert, objective watchdog which provides the toughest scrutiny of British aid spending. ICAI reports not to the ministers responsible – who could at least in theory ignore or bury concerns – but directly to Parliament.
Shining a brighter light on aid spending has rooted out examples of bad practice and minsters have rightly been hauled over the coals as a result, but the overall picture is extremely positive. Taxpayers can be confident that British aid is already amongst the most effective and well-delivered anywhere in the world.
However, the aid landscape is changing. Recent reforms mean that the amount of aid being spent by other government departments is almost tripling, including the establishment of funds with the Department of Health, the Foreign Office and the Business Department. British diplomats are spending aid to support our foreign policy objectives, NHS medical and research expertise is leading new efforts to combat disease around the world and aid is being delivered as part of ambitious private sector partnerships to drive growth in developing countries.
This multi-track approach is already delivering a revolution in international development. But it also presents a series of opportunities for the future of aid spending – greater targeting of aid to where it is most needed, more sophisticated scrutiny to track this more complicated map of spending, and an intensification of cross-government alignment of aid and development, trade, defence and diplomacy.
This approach offers new opportunities for policy alignment across government – enhancing British priorities overseas and multiplying the impact of aid. But it is also essential that the searchlight of scrutiny follows every penny of aid spending to guard against misuse and corruption and ensure value for money. There is a significant opportunity to apply the principles of the Independent Commission on Aid Impact and the oversight of Parliament’s International Development Committee to cross-government aid spending – to drive both transparency and greater policy coherence.
Targeting the poorest and most marginalised
The world has seen remarkable progress in addressing global poverty over the last generation – British aid has been central to achieving the rapid increases in the number of children in school, and a halving of the number of children who die before their fifth birthday. But as well as sustaining this progress across the board, our attention in future should also be focused on those groups who have been left behind.
Where people live – or who they are – can determine whether they are reached by aid and improvements in public services and if they share in rising prosperity.
The UK has been at the forefront of addressing this kind of marginalisation by placing girls and women, too often locked out of economic and social opportunity and bearing the brunt of violence and conflict, at the heart of all our development work. As a result, British aid is being concentrated on getting girls into school, protecting women from sexual violence, increasing access to maternal and reproductive healthcare and opening up opportunities for women’s employment. It is also tackling the blight of modern-day slavery. And our Girls’ Education Challenge Fund – designed to secure schooling for up to 1 million excluded girls by supporting non-state into-school activity – is a world leader.
In 2015, the British government successfully led efforts to inject this approach into global development by setting a new standard for the 2015-2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals – the world cannot now celebrate progress if any economic or social group has been left behind.
This should help drive a new agenda for international development which delivers precisely what the public want from British aid – a robust targeting of aid on those most in need. This means reaching the very poorest and all those who face deliberate discrimination and exclusion – not just women and girls but ethnic and religious minorities and those excluded by geography or displacement as a result of conflict or natural disasters.
We can now deploy the scrutiny architecture established in the last six years to test whether aid is reaching these groups and understand the impact of different approaches to aid and development interventions in raising the prospects of those left the furthest behind.
Tackling corruption and tax avoidance
Continuing this shift in development to ensure it benefits the whole population of developing countries also means reaching beyond the traditional view of aid as simply meeting basic needs, like healthcare or sanitation.
We well understand that in addition to these basic programmes, investment is much needed in the infrastructure of an accountable state and the rule of law – enabling the state to deliver while empowering all citizens, no matter who they are, to challenge their government and demand transparency and equal treatment.
Developing countries will not graduate out of aid until they have these foundations – democratic institutions to hold governments to account and protect against corruption; consistent and transparent rules which prospective investors demand; and tax systems which enable countries to harness economic growth to build public services, rather than tax revenues and natural resource wealth slipping through the fingers of people in the developing world and into tax havens.
I am proud that during my time at the Department for International Development, the UK became the first country in the world to drive innovation in tackling corruption – working across the British police, the Crown Prosecution Service and serious organised crime agencies to root out money laundering and bribe-paying which has such a corrosive effect in developing countries. Tens of millions of pounds of suspicious or stolen assets were frozen or recovered as a result.
As well as addressing corruption, there is a growing recognition, in governments and amongst the development community, of the essential thread which ties together development and tax. We are making significant strides forward, building tax capacity in developing countries, taking multilateral action over tax havens that do not meet rules on transparency, and increasing pressure on the wealthy and the powerful to pay their dues where tax is owed, not where they choose.
Around the world, the UK is leading the way in delivering British expertise and smart aid as the scaffolding within which developing countries can construct functioning state apparatus. For example, in Zambia in 2011 we began to target British aid on improving tax collection, land registry and the inspection and assessment of mineral exports.
Rwanda shows the long term potential of this – investment of British aid in reforming the tax system in Rwanda around the turn of the century delivered a tripling of tax revenues within eight years which, in turn, has led to a fivefold increase in spending on healthcare, falling income poverty and rising school attendance. The proportion of Rwanda’s budget financed by aid is now falling rapidly. Over the last 5 years millions of lives have been transformed there.
A coherent cross-government development agenda
These examples illustrate the real opportunities presented by a cross-government approach to development. Aid and development cannot be effective without advocates across government, particularly in the Treasury and the Foreign Office, pulling the right levers. The UK is leading the way in creating the diplomatic and economic rules, systems, incentives and penalties which will give aid the maximum lasting impact. We need to move faster on joining up these agendas – building a global consensus on resourcing domestic accountability and tax systems and continuing multilateral action on tax avoidance. However, there also remains work to do to ensure that diplomacy and development are always pulling in the same direction.
Foreign Office expertise is working every day across the globe in the service of peace, liberty and prosperity; deploying our diplomats and our aid together to prevent or resolve conflicts, promote rights and create the conditions for economic growth. Yet we still see cases where there is a fundamental disconnect between British foreign policy and British aid.
Today, the most perverse example of this lies in Yemen. Britain is leading the response in a country which was already fragile but which is now in freefall as a result of bitter conflict. Human rights abuses and potential war crimes are reported to have been committed by all parties to the conflict, including our close allies Saudi Arabia. Perversely, we know that Saudi warplanes have destroyed supply warehouses filled with life-saving British aid and levelled hospitals and schools built with British support. Civilian casualties caused by our ally are overwhelming medical facilities which British aid is barely able to keep running. A port our allies were intent on disrupting was also the entry point for British aid and support.
It simply cannot be in our national interest for Britain to be leading the charge in delivering aid to cool tensions in the most war-torn parts of the world, when some of our allies are responsible for fanning those flames. Our long history as a proud humanitarian nation demands that we stand up for our principles including when it is our friends and allies challenging them. Yemen is a clear example of where British diplomatic strength, UK trade (including in arms) and British aid and development ought to be working together to bring an end to conflict, save lives and uphold international humanitarian rules.
Maximising aid impact and the national interest
International aid and development is one of Britain’s most efficient, productive global exports; the mutual benefit for Britain and the developing world is undoubted and has won Britain huge respect around the world. However, if we are to realise the full potential of international development and ensure that it is truly working in our national interest, it is vital that we never relax and become complacent about the way Britain’s development effort is conducted – targeting the poorest and most excluded, working hand-in-hand with diplomatic, defence and economic policy, scrutinised wherever it is spent, and playing a leading role in a British foreign policy agenda which drives new standards in accountability and transparency across the world.
Doing something about the colossal discrepancies of opportunity, quality of life and wealth which exists in our world today must be an international priority. We can all be proud that Britain is playing a leading role in tackling this, but there is a great deal more to be done.
This is the first of three essays from Our Today, Their Tomorrow, published by Save the Children, which will run on ConservativeHome this week.