There’s been a change in government, and like every other department, a new minister is in charge of the Department for International Development (DFID). The coalition government has promised to ring-fence the aid budget, but it will still bring its own priorities and Britain’s aid policies are up for review.
One of the difficulties in taking over is knowing what to carry over from the previous administration. Britain is committed to various treaties and agreements at all sorts of levels, from party and national policies right through to UN or G20 level decisions. Some of those will be in line with the new government’s strategies, and some won’t. So how do you sort out what to keep and what to let slide? And how do you extricate yourself from commitments you don’t intend to keep?
Last week a document was leaked from DFID, which you can read here (pdf). It’s a three page submission of “which previous public commitments DFID should track and honour.” Of the 100 existing commitments, the paper suggests keeping just 19, and only 8 made Andrew Mitchell’s final cut. Among those to be dropped are Britain’s pledged funds for the Malaria Action Plan, which I celebrated here 18 months ago. Micro-insurance, agricultural research and governance and transparency commitments will also lose support.
I understand the need to prioritise, and for the new government to work out what it needs to take forward and how. But there are two particular things in the document that jump out:
Firstly, the discussion is completely internal. If the document had not been leaked, we would not have known the government’s new priorities on aid. “We do not recommend any proactive external communications” the paper says. We would just quietly drop any of our promises that weren’t convenient, and not even bother to tell anybody. As a clue to how dishonest that approach could become, yesterday Andrew Mitchell praised the UN’s Central Emergency Relief Fund on the radio, despite having put it on list of things to quietly scrap just last week.
Second, and worse, is the criteria that governs the decisions. Being the Department for International Development, one would hope that the commitments were assessed on their usefulness to development – what works? What’s delivering on poverty, health or education? Instead, the existing commitments were sorted according to the strength of public backing. This document puts them in order, from those promises that have “strong public backing” or backing from other government departments, through to those “unlikely to be noticed” if dropped.
In other words, DFID appears to have asked what it can get away with. Or rather, what it can away without. It’s an approach so lacking in vision that even Cameron and Clegg’s own promises are swept aside. The coalition agreement explicitly says that water, sanitation, education and healthcare would be prioritised, but the list writes off billions of pounds of spending on exactly those things. And by doing it in secret, it reneges on the coalition’s promise to “introduce full transparency in aid”.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by any of this, but I am disappointed. As a country I think we can be fairly proud of our record on aid in recent years. I was certainly pleased that, despite the recession, we maintained our aim to give 0.7% of our income in aid. This in an inauspicious start for the new regime’s development strategy.