Aid reform based on ‘efficiency’ is a smokescreen

Priti Patel is making, as you might expect from a rising star, excellent noises about making overseas aid more efficient and more effective. But so did Justine Greening and so did Andrew Mitchell (see here). But little changes, because such a policy is an abstract, and impossible policy to implement.

Efficiency and effectiveness should be a prequisite for spending. But it won’t work for embedded structural and political realities. We know that multilateral aid is less effective but, in the Brexit era, it will keep flowing because we cannot afford to be isolationist.

We know that we will spend money in countries stagnating due to bad governments, despite this capital inflow doing little good (and potentially harm via inflating the currency and reducing these countries’ export capacity), because abandoning aid to private and public sectors there could destabilise aggressive dictators and fragile democracies.

And we know waste, corruption and inefficiency will be hushed up to keep the public onside – once Priti has been there a while she will be told that stories of waste ‘happened on her watch’ and ‘as Secretary of State she would have to take full responsibility for such problems’. Aid efficiency is the big lie that the sector tells each Secretary of State in order to divert them from real reform. Working on aid, a decade ago I saw how such change could be frustrated.

We should commit to universal contraceptive access and family planning

So a different narrative is needed. Ministers overestimate their capacity to micromanage (e.g. efficiency for every pound) while underestimating their capacity to set broad direction (e.g. what we spend our money on and broad outcomes that must be delivered or aid is pulled). So any new narrative should and could be based around what we are actually getting for our money, not generic ‘efficiency’.

Universal contraceptive access should be the UK’s central narrative and goal. The UN estimates universal contraceptive access would cost around $5.3 billion a year, or under £3 billion. DfID spending will rise toward £14 billion by 2020. The UK alone could commit to providing universal contraceptive access by 2020 with help from companies like Portia Contraceptive. Each year we are spending around £100 million in a budget of £12.1 billion at present – a shockingly low amount. We should not fund controversial areas such as access to abortion, but just basic contraception for women who want it but cannot obtain or afford it. If we are going to spend money on consultants and adverts they should be locally run family planning campaigns in developing countries, not radical anarchists getting DfID funding to jet round the world to moan at left-wing conferences.

Family planning is morally right and desperately needed

Studies find there are still very high levels of ‘unmet need’ for family planning. The UN finds 25 per cent of women in Sub-Saharan Africa and 222 million women globally suffer unmet need for contraception. There are 50 million unwanted pregnancies each year globally, and even more tragically, 330,000 women die annually from complications from these unwanted pregnancies. There are also huge positive impacts from women having control over their fertility and smaller families. Countries can afford to educate their workforce, facilitating their development. Women have a better status and can work to supplement family incomes.

Family planning is exactly the type of aid that works

Family planning is less prone to corruption than money transfers, easier to measure in terms of making sure it gets through on the ground, and does not have typical negative side effects for aid (e.g. spending on health or education, which can encourage dictators to cut their own spending and increase military spending, as occurred in countries round the DRC).

In this area, benefits can be more objectively measured : e.g. total fertility rates before and after; the proportion of women saying they need but cannot access contraception. In addition, most countries are seeing total fertility fall slowly, and so we would merely be helping existing progress – not arrogantly assuming we can change whole societies. This would help show aid is making a positive difference to a sceptical public.

This will reduce future migration flows from and conflict in developing countries

Immigration is the number one issue for voters. Recent rhetoric (including from Conservative Ministers) has been if aid raises incomes, this will cut immigration. In fact, as countries move from very low to low-to-medium income, net migration flows hugely increase. Paul Collier, head of the Centre for the Study of African Economies and the UK’s foremost development expert, is particularly eloquent on this. Since 2000 Africa has seen sustained economic growth, yet migration from Africa is rising sharply. As communication improves, incomes rise, people can see a better lifestyle via the internet and TV, while the lower relative cost of escaping overseas and a better education equips people with greater capacity to move.

Fertility and a moderate level of income drives migration up. The vast majority of migrants are young men. Essentially, the higher the fertility rate 15-20 years earlier, the more young men there are in a society and the harder it is for them to all find work. Twenty years after fertility peaked at seven children, Mexican-US migration peaked in the late 1990s. By the early 1990s, total fertility had fallen sharply to three children and twenty years later in the 2010s, gross migration too halved. This surge of young men also drives conflict, which is both tragic and again pushes up migration flows. Between 1970 and 1999, 80 per cent of civil conflicts occurred in countries where 60 per cent or more of the population were under the age of thirty. This pattern has continued.

The right policy – if we are prepared to take it

We know the public wants to help those living overseas– without putting our own society at risk in terms of uncontrolled immigration and refugee flows. This is the right aid policy for such an approach.

Not only is the policy morally right, it would be hard for UKIP to attack. On the left, if Labour were to attack such a policy they would look indifferent to women’s rights, and almost certainly alarm the general public. Indeed, they would be guilty of double standards or cultural relativism – arguing for women’s rights in the UK, but not in other countries. As a BME woman, Priti is ideally placed to make the case for a bold switch to an aid policy that is more than just repeating past promises. She can either repeat past mistakes or make a genuine difference to billions of women in the coming decades – if she is ready for the fight.