Spoke about the future of aid to an enquiry by Foreign Affairs Policy Committee of the Conservative Party 1922 Committee last week (apologies for too many committees in one sentence – that’s parliament for you). I was intrigued because I didn’t know the 1922 did this sort of thing – all you ever see of them on the news is Tory MPs banging desks as they defenestrate another Prime Minister.
The topic of the enquiry was:
“Aid as a concept has fallen into disrepute in recent years, but Britain has always been seen and must always be seen as a force for good in the world. With this in mind, what should we seek to do with our aid / international engagement system?”
Haven’t done this kind of parliamentary gig for a while, but it was pretty much how I remember it. Thinly attended by a few staffers + some household names (at least in my household) with some kind of power and the confidence to pronounce on the huge range of issues they confront on a daily basis, relying more on their ideological ‘priors’ and a couple of personal experiences, than any close engagement with evidence.
It wasn’t exactly Chatham House rule, but I will refrain from naming names, apart from the chair Giles Watling, who seemed rather open-minded , and keen to get some content for a report they will send to the Prime Minister – it’s a much more informal internal party exercise than the set piece of the Development Select Committee, but I have no idea whether it has more/less influence on decision-making.
In these kinds of events, you try and shape your remarks to the audience, but inevitably, they sift through and take the things that fit their priors, while the rest bounces off. It can be quite frustrating, but makes you realize why politicians sometimes just repeat the same phrase over and over so that can’t happen. Here are my speaking notes, followed by what I think ‘landed’ – although won’t know for sure ‘til they write up their report after interviewing a few more people.
Questioning the premise:
Outside the UK/Scandinavian bubble of gloom, things look much more positive: global aid hit an all-time high of US$178.9bn in 2021, up 4.4% in real terms from 2020. More here.
Even inside the UK, public misperceptions run deep – when asked in surveys, people normally put aid at around 20% of government spending, when the true figure is a tenth of that. When people hear how much is actually spent (more like 2% than 20), they want to increase it.
But if we accept the premise, what is broken and how can it be fixed?
FCDO has lost control of the aid budget, leading to a slush fund mentality in other departments, and poor Value for Money, because they can raid the aid budget and don’t have to account for the quality of their spending.
More £ is now being spent in the UK than on bilateral aid to poor countries (estimates by Stefan Dercon and Ranil Dissanayake): £3bn a year is now spent in direct bilateral aid by the UK; a further £4bn within the UK; £4bn via multilateral institutions.
Transparency and accountability: Massive backwards steps since the ‘merger’/abolition of DFID
In terms of reputation, UK has gone from a leader in many areas of development to a global laughing-stock
- Aid can work in the ‘enlightened’ national interest but only if you allow it to be genuinely aid. In trying to crudely make aid work in the national interest, merging DFID into the FCDO and then cutting that aid, the UK has severely weakened that potency. Aid has to be actually aid to work in the national interest.
- Restore honesty to what we classify as aid.
- Make a proper medium/long term strategy. Right now, it resembles an ambassadorial slush fund.
- Stefan Dercon: ‘budgets are in an absolute mess: they no longer serve development, nor make any sense from a value-for-money point of view’.
- Create really super clear and rigorous lines of accountability for what ALL the money classed as aid is achieving
- Get a defined and protected development budget
- Support Andrew Mitchell’s efforts to rebuild credibility and stop Home Office raiding, which he recently said in parliament is ‘very much the subject of discussions between the Foreign Office and the Treasury”.’
Ideas on non-£ cooperation (sank like a stone – no interest, but had to give it a go!)
- Influencing: sharing skills to influence the actions and policies of governments and other powerful players
- Positive Deviance
- Signposters: which government or academic community is best placed to advise others on any of the numerous shared problems that defy North/South binaries – tobacco control, obesity, inequality, alcohol, road traffic accidents?
What landed (perhaps):
UK aid needs more transparency and accountability. They like this because it brings more control back home to the UK, of every penny – they were sceptical on spending via multilaterals like the World Bank.
The need to have greater control of how aid is spent also went in some weird directions, including admiration for how China manages infrastructural investments (Chinese managers on the ground etc) in the Belt and Road initiative.
Value for Money – Despite the massive cuts, they still think aid is largely wasted, e.g. ‘flinging money around at the end of the financial year’. Not sure what, if anything, would change their minds on that.
But the overall anti-aid mindset was pretty depressing, although sometimes quite funny – ‘an outdoor relief system for unemployable public school children’.
Will be interested to read the final report and see what stuck.