The war on aid: the hidden battle inside Priti Patel's own department

Through Dfid, Britain has run the world's most ambitious aid policy for 20 years. Now, the right has it in its sights. Can it be saved—and should it be?

November 10, 2017
Priti Patel has resigned. But what will happen to Dfid? Photo: PA
Priti Patel has resigned. But what will happen to Dfid? Photo: PA

A few weeks before Priti Patel resigned as International Development Secretary, I spoke to a long-serving official in her department. He was tired, frustrated and had just decided to quit. “I just don’t know what we’re doing anymore,” he said.

The department he was leaving was not the one he had joined. Development experts had been overlooked for promotion, while fast-track civil service graduates with no overseas experience were being groomed for top positions. Indeed, increasing numbers of senior officials had never been based abroad. Dozens of experienced staff had already left this year.

After 20 years in existence, and 10 in which Britain’s two parties competed to express their devotion to the Department for International Development (Dfid) and its budget, the tenor of the times had suddenly turned against the department and left it feeling besieged. It was under almost daily attack from the same constellation of right-wing newspapers and forces that had recently done for Britain’s place in the European Union. In October Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, called its independent existence into question—lamenting the “colossal mistake” that New Labour had made in splitting aid off from its original home in the Foreign Office. And in this testing environment, Dfid was living under hostile leadership. Patel, who Johnson cheerfully relayed was—like him—“basically trying to bring the Foreign Office and Dfid” together, was never likely to defend her turf, because she’d never really believed in the Dfid mission. Several Dfid staff I spoke to worried that her agenda had become indistinguishable from that of the department’s critics. Even Andrew Mitchell, one of her Conservative predecessors, told me he had warned Patel not to “pander to the Daily Mail.”

Patel’s forced departure, after it emerged she had held secretive summer holiday meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, and other Israeli officials, will not end the debate. Her successor, Penny Mordaunt, is from the same pro-Brexit, aid-sceptic wing of the Conservative Party. Under David Cameron, the party had been a strong supporter of aid and the existence of Dfid—now it’s turning against both. The pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of British GDP on aid and development is under attack. Can this great British experiment in trying to separate foreign policy and pursuit of the national interest from aid, and the promotion of development abroad, survive? And, after the mess of Patel attempting to run a parallel foreign policy, should it?

The long and Short of it

Unlike every other department budget, which is set based on what the government believes it needs and can afford, Dfid’s is set by law. There is no denying this is an oddity. Regardless of the wider economic picture, the British government must spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid and development. That figure has been a target for developed nations for more than 40 years, but where did it come from?

It turns out that the answer is Britain. Ahead of the 1959 general election, Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell wanted to “extend the Socialist concept of the Welfare State to all the peoples of the world.” He asked Arthur Lewis, a distinguished development economics professor from St Lucia, to come up with a figure that the party should pledge. Lewis, who was then the chief economic advisor to the newly-independent Ghanaian government turned to a student helping him with a project in Francophone West Africa.

That unnamed student told Lewis that French expendituresthere seemed to add up to 1 per cent of French African GNP. One per cent of national income in the colonies was, of course, a very different matter from one per cent of national income in the richer imperial countries. But no matter. One per cent, Lewis decided, had a nice ring to it. The 1959 Labour manifesto solemnly pledged “to devote an average of 1 per cent of our national income” to development. The party lost that year, but an idea had nonetheless been born. The figure would later be broken down into 0.7 per cent government spending and a further 0.3 per cent of private investment. In the late 1960s, former US Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara, became president of the World Bank, and asked the former Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson to lead a commission into effective assistance. It recommended that all rich nations should spend 0.7 per cent of their GDP on aid and development. From the 1970s, various UN bodies and mission statements would codify the aim.

Britain’s own progress towards 0.7 per cent was slow—and faltering. It had reached 0.51 per cent by 1979, but after 18 years of the Thatcher/Major Conservative governments, the share had fallen back by half, to 0.26. Tony Blair’s decision to create a new Department for International Development in 1997, alongside a pledge to commit to an eventual 0.7 per cent of GDP, finally put development at the heart of foreign policy.

But there were serious teething problems. Blair put Clare Short at the helm of the new department, a radical idealist who was never afraid of an argument. She was determined to extricate development from the sort of grubby embroilment with commercial interests that had in the mid-1990s been in the spotlight thanks to the arms-exports-for-aid Pergau Dam scandal. Although there was much talk of newly “ethical” policy as Robin Cook took up at the Foreign Office, realpolitik never went away, as became obvious in 1997 when Cook reluctantly assented to a controversial arms deal with dictatorial Indonesia which his predecessors had set in train.

Short was never far from the fray. She was engaged in daily battles with a Foreign Office that was still unwilling to accept that development—and the £2bn budget that went with it—should have been hived off. In an interview with the Independent on Sunday in August 1997, Short described herself as the “whipping girl for people who cannot bear the idea of an independent department… committed to development and not to Britain’s short-term interest.” There were parts of a Foreign Office laced with “bile and dishonesty,” she said, that “look backward at Britain’s role in the world and rather yearn for empire.” That interview would, incidentally, almost end Short’s career, were it not for the death of Princess Diana, which knocked her off the front page.

Short’s leadership “made Dfid what it was,” says her eventual successor Hilary Benn. Every single person interviewed, from former Dfid secretaries of state to foreign secretaries, Dfid officials to NGO staff, credits Short’s initial success. Mitchell described her as “a brilliant development secretary.”

A rising budget was one important part of how Britain’s development policy changed, but there were big changes too in how that money was spent. Short shifted the focus of development away from funding particular programmes—in education, healthcare or agriculture—and towards support for governments. She argued that unless a government was able to govern, it didn’t matter how much money was handed out. Controversially, this direct and general “budget support” included support for police and the military.

Hundreds of millions of pounds a year was given directly to governments, such as Ethiopia and Rwanda. That money bought Britain greater influence in those countries than it had previously enjoyed. Governments in developing nations began to understand that Dfid was the department that mattered, not the Foreign Office. Rivalry set in.

Jack Straw, who succeeded Cook in the summer of 2001, asked his special adviser Michael Williams whether relations between Dfid and the Foreign Office had really been as bad as he’d heard. Williams told him: “Robin would rather have gone off to Ulaanbaatar in the back of a Hercules transport aircraft than cross the park for a meeting with Clare.” Nor were the clashes limited to the secretaries of state. Dfid officials, in Straw’s view, had developed a “conceit of themselves.” Long before Patel, “they were setting themselves up as a separate foreign policy operation.”

Ambassadors and Dfid country directors clashed on the ground. It wasn’t just that Dfid was taking money and influence from the Foreign Office—the bigger issue was that Dfid’s priorities were different. As Mitchell told me, “The Foreign Office thought development was the ambassador’s spouse’s favourite charity.” Short changed that. “She wanted to have a voice in cabinet that was not dictated by the UK’s own interest,” said Bronte Flecker, who worked in her private office. “The Foreign Office found it quite hard. Their slush fund had been taken away…” The FCO budget is more like 0.1 than 0.7 per cent of GDP that Dfid was working towards.

But more important for the longevity of Dfid than the inside Whitehall turf wars, was the political competition between the parties at Westminster. While Dfid was seen as a New Labour pet project, it was always going to be vulnerable to a swing of the political pendulum. Fortunately for the department, when David Cameron became Tory leader he seized on aid as the perfect emblem of his efforts to improve what his marketing men called his party’s “aroma.” This, remember, was during the “hug a hoodie,” “ride with a husky,” “stick a windmill on your house” phase of Cameronism. The 0.7 per cent target fitted perfectly with all that, and was then a decidedly fashionable cause—Cameron became leader in the year that the G8 meeting in Gleneagles prompted the Live8 concert in Hyde Park and the Make Poverty History campaign.

It might seem remarkable that we’ve now drifted so far from the idealism of those days that Patel could offer aid to the Israeli Defence Forces—an occupying force—operating in the Golan Heights. But then perhaps the bigger surprise should be that, after long years of austerity, Dfid and the 0.7 per cent target has survived at all. Aside from gay marriage, it is now all that remains of the Cameronian Conservative makeover. It seems to belong to another age in the party.

But a decade ago, there was some real Tory enthusiasm. Pointing at his sofa in the living room of his Islington townhouse, Mitchell recalled the night he decided which projects would receive funding. “I sat where you’re sitting with tears pouring down my face on the night we made our decisions on where we would spend the money. I could spend the Dfid budget three times over on really good things that even the Daily Mail would say ‘this is a good thing to spend money on.’”

When the financial crisis hit in 2008, Cameron forgot his previous commitment to match Labour’s wider spending total and embraced retrenchment. Dfid, however, was immune. Aid was not merely shielded from the planned cuts, like the NHS, but continued to be ear-marked for the rises required to get Britain to 0.7 per cent.

Mitchell, however, always knew that there were going to be serious political challenges within his own tribe, and worked hard to overcome them. Cameron ventured to Rwanda where he gave a speech about development and announced the launch of his party’s own aid venture, Project Umubano. An annual two-week trip to Rwanda for Conservative Party MPs and activists, this proved to be Cameron and Mitchell’s secret weapon. As an aid project, Project Umubano is terrible. It’s gap-year-style volunteerism—building classrooms, teaching English, helping out in health clinics. The Instagram feeds of the volunteers are filled with pictures of them surrounded by smiling, grateful children. It’s striking how many people who have been involved in Umubano refer to their trips to “Africa”, not Rwanda.

But as a political project, it was genius. It attracted a stream of volunteers—ambitious would-be Tory MPs soon realised that a fortnight teaching English in a Rwandan village was a sure-fire way of getting yourself on the new A list for a safe seat. A decade on, the project’s alumni includes MPs, Lords and special advisers. Mitchell admits that helping Rwanda was only one aim of the project. “I introduced it, above all, to try to make sure that within the Conservative Party there is a core of people who are passionate about development. One of the reasons I bigged it up this year [on its 10th anniversary] was to try to rectify this drift in the Tory Party.”

That anti-aid drift is today rife in his party, but not so long ago things were very different. When the Conservatives came to power in 2010 Cameron initially tried to move Mitchell to Work and Pensions, saying: “‘Mitch, I want to promote you,’” Mitchell recalled. “I said ‘I don’t regard that as a promotion. I’d much rather stay where I am and try to bring the Conservative Party into the 21st century.’” He soon won respect from the Labour-dominated aid community—one Labour Party member and senior NGO official happily told me, “thank god for Andrew Mitchell. He’s been brilliant.”

Few top-ranking Tories would enjoy that sort of endorsement today. While Mitchell points out that only seven MPs voted against 0.7 becoming law in 2014, that was a vote on a private members’ bill: three quarters of MPs were absent. Based on conversations with several Conservative MPs it’s reasonable to believe that approaching half of the parliamentary party would now be in favour of dropping the target.

One of those willing to say so publicly is Robert Halfon who has called for £5bn—more than a third of the budget—to be spent instead on a pay-rise for public sector workers. “There is a growing feeling in the country that while you have an economic crisis it [the aid budget] should be curtailed,” he said. “People cannot understand why we’re about to spend £13bn on aid, but something that affects them has been cut back.” Real pressure from constituents, stoked up by the Mail and Express, is part of the picture—but only part. Just as important has been the loss of interest in aid at the top.

The darling buds of May

Back in the spring, days before calling her snap election, Theresa May was explicitly asked about her commitment to the 0.7 per cent figure, and twice she failed to endorse it. Meanwhile, in the appraisal of Kirsty McNeill, a former adviser to Gordon Brown who now directs policy at Save the Children, the years of consensus have snuffed out the fire in the belly of the aid industry itself: “We’ve become quite technocratic. The sector moved from a big campaigning… story-telling conversation.” Instead, “everyone was so busy spending aid money,” and “we vacated the field.”

But with 0.7 looking vulnerable, a fightback begun. The first days of the election campaign were dominated by a debate over the aid budget, thanks entirely to a campaign led by the industry. The big charities are replete with people who have political experience. They’ve run general election campaigns, communication strategies for prime ministers and organised summits. When the election was called, these veterans mobilised. Calls were made, favours called in. A grid, that tool beloved of all political campaigners, was created. The aim was to dominate every single news cycle, from six in the morning to 11 at night. Ruth Davidson, a very public enthusiast for the aid budget, spoke first. Then came Bill Gates, the first of many international figures. As the interventions dominated the headlines, ministers doing public events were asked for their view. As government policy hadn’t actually changed, they found themselves stuck in an awkward position and some defended the status quo. The interventions mapped out by the aid group kept coming: former Archbishop Rowan Williams; World Bank chief, Jim Yong Kim. Eventually, a panic-stricken No 10 caved: during a factory visit in her Maidenhead constituency, May said “the 0.7 per cent commitment remains and will remain.”
“Priti is about Priti,” he said. “It’s all about becoming prime minister.”
It was a victory, for sure, but how long can a reluctant promise from a weak prime minister be made to stick? The forces that yearn for Dfid to be folded back into the Foreign Office are only likely to be emboldened by Patel’s reign, short as it was. While the budget remains intact, Patel happily accelerated the process by which Dfid’s very role is being eroded: a quarter of all aid money is now spent by other government departments. Its junior ministers are now shared with the Foreign Office. Long-serving Dfid staff told me morale is the lowest it has ever been, in part due to the way Patel ran the department.

Tensions between Patel’s team and Dfid veterans were there from the off—they had not forgotten that she had once argued that Dfid should be abolished. She and her team knew “that 80 per cent of their officials don’t trust them,” said one member of the 80 per cent. One long-standing Dfid civil servant went further: “Priti is about Priti,” he said. “It’s all about becoming prime minister.” Nor, he says, did she appear to know much about her brief. “She seems to be incredibly stupid and offensive.”

Patel’s lack of understanding of development issues had consequences. On a trip to South Sudan in April she told reporters that the violence in the country amounted to genocide. While atrocities had been committed, they did not amount to genocide, a word that has very specific connotations. Signatories to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide—of which Britain is one—“undertake to prevent and to punish” those who carry out the crime. Dfid and FCO officials in South Sudan scrambled to walk back Patel’s comments.

Patel seemed to delight in shaking the ground on which Dfid stood. Her speech at Conservative Party conference was mocked in the media as a leadership bid, but aid experts inside the department were more worried by the content. One official told me he’d watched it “open-jawed.” Time and again she criticised “wasted aid,” saying the public were “right to be angry” and that she would be “ruthless in closing programmes.” Using the sort of language that often gets used to bash benefit claimants, Patel said she was “not here to endlessly hand out money.” When she did talk about Britain’s role in development she linked “our heroic armed forces and aid experts.” One senior NGO policy official sums up the alarm this provoked: “it’s dangerous for our people” to be associated with the military.

One reason that aid is proving so suddenly vulnerable is that nobody ever made the argument about what modern development involves. It’s not just grain handouts and paying for teachers or nurses. Often our support goes on things which, when ripped from its context and placed in size 72 font on a tabloid headline, can look like a waste. One such project was created in Ethiopia, an innovative crackdown on an epidemic of child marriage.

It was called Girl Effect and Dfid funded it to the tune of £5.2m. A culture brand was created, called Yegna, which included a radio show and a girl group. The aim was to change perceptions of what girls could do, instead of entering into a marriage before they were 16. Dfid thought it was a success, giving it an A rating.

That wasn’t how the Daily Mail saw it. Last December they splashed the “Ethiopian Spice Girls” on the front page as an example of wasted aid. Dfid initially defended the grant, calling it an “innovative partnership tackling forced child marriage, violence, teen pregnancy, migration and school drop-out, which are holding a generation of young Ethiopian women back.” But just one month later, in a terse statement on the department website, it announced that funding had been pulled. Many Dfid employees were furious and embarrassed—and told me the decision had been made by Patel and her closest advisers, with no input from Dfid’s Ethiopian specialists.

The future of aid

Will those nationalist voices who believe “charity begins at home” prevail? Even more fundamentally, given Dfid’s mixed record in delivery, does 0.7 per cent deserve to remain the goal? Or has it run its course?

While three of Patel’s predecessors—Short, Benn and Mitchell—told me they believed Dfid should remain independent, the once-consensual target is now deeply controversial. Even Short now has her doubts. “I am afraid that the department has lost capacity and that 0.7 has ended up being destructive. Money is useful if it is well spent, not in itself.” While she insists that the target remains a “good idea,” “the UK development community needs a serious debate about what has gone wrong and how to put it right. It would be great to keep 0.7 and refocus, but this may not be possible.”

Straw is another former believer. “I don’t think protected budgets are an aid to good government. Those departments don’t have to argue their corner and they get sloppy. It leads to officials in Dfid searching for projects to spend money. An awful lot of money goes to spend on jobs for middle-class whites.”

One Dfid official responsible for spending tens of millions of pounds, said: “You’re told to get money out of the door the best you can.” As the scrutiny over 0.7 has increased, Dfid has tried to dramatically reduce its administrative costs. That has brought its own set of problems. A larger budget is now administered by far fewer people. Perversely, this leads to a greater risk of projects going wrong—and then becoming scandals. A paralysing caution begins to set in. “There is no doubt in my mind that Dfid has become increasingly ineffective as it has got more money,” said a long-time official who has spent much of the past decade in East Africa. “There are not enough people to spend it.” The department would be stronger, he said, if it had a smaller budget but more independence and less pressure.

Other analysts argue that the budget could be spent in a different way. “It should go into a trust fund,” says Ben Rawlence, a human rights researcher and author of two books on East and Central Africa. “If you can’t spend it, then wait. Or, spend it on something else: climate research, carbon offsetting, cleaning up the oceans.” Alternatively, he says, any surplus at the end of the year could be given to the World Food Programme, which always has a shortfall.
“Progress cannot happen unless there is good leadership.”
Benn remains one voice who still wholeheartedly backs the target. Even he, however, worries that the “reduction of headcount and a rising budget” has made it far harder for Britain to have bilateral programmes. “They need to be managed and that takes staff time.” Safer projects are chosen, particularly ones where large amounts can be spent. That often means not spending in countries where the need is greatest.

Furthermore, it has become increasingly plain that many prominent recipients of Dfid aid have—and probably always had—a hazy relationship with democracy and human rights, particularly in East and Central Africa. Leaders like Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame were being hailed as a breath of fresh air as the Millennium dawned. But Kagame and Museveni are still in power two decades later, and while only death drew a line under Meles, his successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, won the most recent election with 99 per cent of the vote. “It’s one of the reason I finally left,” reflects Flecker. “Progress cannot happen unless there is good leadership. In Congo, leadership was so atrocious that all aid could be was a sticking plaster. I can be proud of keeping some people alive, having educated some people, but have we improved things? I don’t think so because we were having to work with a scurrilous head of state.”

The British model of aid and development is not perfect. It has led us to ally ourselves with dictators and avert our eyes from human rights abuses. Some of the money has, of course, been wasted—what government department doesn’t spend on projects that come to nothing? But it has undoubtedly saved lives and changed lives across the developing world. At a time when few nations have a good word to say about Britain, our aid is rightly praised. The 0.7 target is, as one aid official put it, “a symbol that we give a shit”. That matters, not just for how Britain is viewed, but as a spur for other nations to do more.

Britain’s last three prime ministers have all led projects focusing on international poverty once they left office: Blair with his Africa Governance Initiative, Brown as the UN Special Envoy for global education and Cameron who is now setting up a Fragile States Commission. “There is no other country in the world where the number one priority post office for the last three leaders is international poverty,” points out McNeill. “There is nowhere else in the world like Britain.”

For how long will we be able to say that?