Priti Patel was in the unusual position, when she went to head the Department for International Development, of having called for its abolition. This will not have gone down well with its civil servants, many of whom choose to work there, because they are believers in its cause. And, sure enough, she began her tenure, as her two immediate predecessors did, by declaring herself horrified by wasteful spending, and proclaiming her determination to root it out.
Meanwhile, the department’s budget, though a relative minnow compared to many others at £13 billion or so (the two biggest chunks by far are pensions and healthcare, consuming over £140 billion each), was specially protected, first by the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent a year of gross national income on aid, and second by the unique writing into law of this pledge. We wonder whether Patel ever compared herself to Casablanca‘s Captain Renault: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” “Your winnings, sir.” “Oh, thank you very much.”
If so, she will have worked out quickly that the comparison doesn’t altogether hold. Renault didn’t own Rick’s “Cafe Americain”, and didn’t close it for long. Her position was more like that of Rick himself. And even he is a bird of passage (since he eventually sells the cafe). This being so, Patel knuckled down to do more, in effect, than complain about her circumstances. We can discern three main trends.
First, she boosted DfiD’s communications capacity. Tim Singleton came in from ITV as Director of Communications. Rhodri Phillips arrived from the Sun as Head of News. Patel’s team began to get on the front foot, making more of the good that the department was going, rather than being continually forced onto the back foot – more often by aid waste in other departments, such as the Foreign Office, than her own. The aid charities liked the change. But Patel had a more meaningful task than improving publicity – namely, implementing policy.
So, second, she strove to put last June’s Conservative Manifesto into effect. Its most striking section on aid declared that “we do not believe that international definitions of development assistance always help in determining how money should be spent”. It went on to promise an attempt to change the rules. “If that does not work, we will change the law to allow us to use a better definition,” it concluded. This was a novel departure in a policy area that tends to work by international consensus.
Patel had a big success in this field. Earlier this month, she got change through the OECD which allowed aid money to be spent richer countries if they were hit by natural disasters. It is ironic that this reform, agreed in the wake of Hurricane Irma’s destruction of much of the British Virgin Isles, and arguably her biggest achievenment, came on the verge of her exit from the Cabinet. The adjustment also enabled Britain and other countries to spend more aid on UN peacekeeping missions. Patel also became a forceful banger of the drum at the UN – such as her push last year over Yemen’s “forgotten crisis”.
This leads to a third point. Theresa May has her own development priorities, such as helping to combat modern slavery. But perhaps the biggest shift in policy has been to seek the alignment of aid more closely with Britain’s foreign policy aims, and its delivery through departments other than DfID. The Government aims to spend 30 per cent through other departments, such as the Foreign Office and Defence, by 2020.
So it is that both Rory Stewart and Alistair Burt find themselves serving not only as Foreign Office Ministers but as DfID ones too. The change has doubtless been put in place partly to appease Boris Johnson’s ambitions of swallowing the department up within his own. But it is also a sign of a wider push to get other spending reclassified as development spending, thus easing the constraints on other departments – or, if you prefer, to recognise that security and counter-terrorism spending can themselves be a form of aid. This shift comes at an interesting time.
One of the reasons why the Israeli Government will have been keen to lobby Patel – who delivered enough of her programme to be counted an effective DfID Secretary – is because of the relationship between aid and Brexit. It will have spotted that Britain will soon have a new freedom of foreign policy manouevre, and unsurprisingly wants to tilt it in the direction of Israel’s interests. Penny Mordaunt will perhaps be brooding more widely on this new freedom as she gets her feet under her new DfID desk. Roughly ten per cent of that £13 billion or so budget is channelled through the EU.
£1 billion or so out of a public spending of over £800 billion is a tiny proportion – though a staggering sum in itself – and the Government is keeping its intentions for the money very close to its chest. It seems willing to see the sum spent through the EU institutions in much the same way as now…if by agreeing to do so it can gain something else that it wants during the negotiation. But if the money both returns and stays here, Mordaunt will have to make – or at least help make – an interesting decision: what to do with it.
Ministers will doubtless debate the priorities that the manifesto outlines in line with the Sustainable Development Goals – ending extreme poverty, saving children’s lives, educating girls, combating the slave trave, tackling sexual violence in conflict. Stephen Crabb and Huw Merriman have advanced what they describe as a distinctly Conservative agenda for the new Global Britain – based on getting some of the world’s very poorest into a position whereby they can better help themselves. They stress the need “in particular, to unlock the potential of the millions of small businesses in developing countries”.
This does not seem to be where our readers are. Most, like this site, are not wedded to hitting a particular spending target. Like us, too, they will doubtless oppose writing spending targets into law, on the ground that the Parliament must continuously be reviewing public spending – and that moves to the contrary are usually, as in this case, pieces of virtue-signalling. But if our surveys are anything to go by, most of them, like us again, support overseas aid in principle, and strongly back aspects of it.
In one conducted two years ago, 92 per cent backed funding for emergency relief – that same relief that Patel fought successfully to extend – 82 per cent immunising children against preventable diseases, 76 per cent water provision and 73 per cent sanitation. The numbers dropped for school funding, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and supporting governance and economic reform. But even here, up to a quarter or so backed these less direct forms of aid. Is Mordaunt, who actually has hands-on experience herself as an aid worker, thinking what they’re thinking?