Back in June, we wrote about the Government’s long overdue decision to tighten up on aid spending.
Evidence had surfaced that the Prime Minister’s vaunted and legally-binding spending commitments had induced in the Department for International Development (DfID) an attitude of ‘spend first, ask questions never’. Consultancies were making sport of taking hapless officials to the cleaners.
This morning’s Times (£) provides a timely reminder of why this is so necessary. The paper has discovered that more than half a billion pounds were “rushed into a controversial foreign aid project” mere days before the deadline for David Cameron’s target, breaching Britain’s rules on donations in the process.
Officials allegedly told auditors that they hoped that the UK’s generosity would encourage others to give more. Instead Britain has footed the bill for one fifth of the Geneva-based Global Fund’s entire budget – twice the initially agreed amount.
Yet this decision isn’t controversial solely because of the scale of the spending commitment. The Times also reveals that the Global Fund “pays its 600-plus staff, all in Switzerland, an average annual remuneration package of more than $200,000.” It has also shelled out for a “showpiece, lakeside headquarters in Geneva.”
The are also allegations that the medicine it helps distribute is stockpiled rather than used, and of malaria nets being ill-overseen and ending up employed for fishing or making wedding dresses. Further, a previous crisis of leadership in 2013 almost caused the Global Fund to close.
All in all, a strange outfit to be receiving more Government money than Great Ormond Street Hospital.
If nothing else, the extraordinary salary base speaks to a point raised earlier this month by another stand-off between the Government and the third sector, this time over the high-profile charity Kids Company.
As we described, not only are charities under-scrutinised but the sector benefits from a series of public misconceptions: not only that charities are better regulated than in truth, but about the nature of charity work.
That many charities now pay as well as top commercial firms, or depend on the Government for so much of their income that they are basically autonomous agencies of the state, is often missing from the popular imagination.
But this makes the need for well-informed scrutiny more pressing, not less.
Of course, this decision was made in 2013, before the Government’s new review. But good as it looks, the Prime Minister must recognise that in its current form his target will continue to distort the decisions of British aid disbursers.
Lord Forsyth, a former Conservative Scottish Secretary, and Lord Lipsey, a Labour peer, have proposed making the 0.7 per cent target a five-year one, to prevent officials getting similarly bounced in future.
But as Tories we should recognise that this sort of bad decision making is a common consequence of playing Labour’s game and building policy around what you put in, rather than outcomes.
If the Government wants to make a deep and long-lasting improvement in British aid spending, it should try to find a measure for aid based on what is achieved with it, not what is spent on it.
Until then, DfID will likely continue to be plagued by the profligate, budgets-are-power civil service mind set so bitingly summarised by Yes, Prime Minister in 1986: “They pitch for as much as they think they can get away with and then think what to spend it on.”