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?by Steve Bloomfield / November 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
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?