30 January 2020

In defence of UK aid

By Tim Morris

Are we paying too much in aid? Too little? Do we spend it wisely? Could we do more?  Our international aid budget provides a rich seam of debate amongst politicians, advisors and commentators – but all too rarely do those who have led HM Government’s work overseas get a role in the conversation.

I have spent my career as a diplomat in the engine room of trade diplomacy, peacekeeping and as an Ambassador in the developing world. When I walked into the office on my first day as Head of Mission at the British Embassy in the Democratic Republic of Congo – and again later when I became Ambassador in South Sudan – I told my team that I was their (Department for International Development, Department for International Trade, and Ministry of Defence) Ambassador – with all three playing a key role in our diplomatic work.

The help provided by our aid programme, and the support of DFID’s extraordinary staff, was integral to our conflict reduction work, and our main lever of influence in these two countries. Strong programmes delivered by DFID were a part of what I messaged publicly and in private to the countries’ leaders. The programmes were for the benefit of the people of both countries. They were not themselves political but our presence in the country was amplified through them, and gave us the political weight we needed to push for change and save lives.

Nevertheless, earlier this month Liam Fox resuscitated an image of DFID as acting independently and, more surprisingly, exercising more influence than the Head of Mission. In my experience this hasn’t happened and isn’t a fair characterisation of how it really works.

The argument for change to DFID’s status appears to be based on a series of preconceptions: that the United Kingdom’s development programmes should further UK foreign policy or commercial interests; that the current arrangement of separate Departments (the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development) somehow does not work efficiently; and that funds can be diverted away from aid and towards helping UK business. The solution to the perceived problem was apparently to fold the two Departments together calzone-style. If, as media reports suggest, this plan has been dropped, this is good news. Amalgamating the two departments would have entailed the loss of the Secretary of State for Development and the British voice of development, not just in the Cabinet but also internationally, potentially causing irrevocable damage on the world stage.

DFID and its Secretary of State perform a unique role in projecting Britain’s contribution to eradicating poverty and making the world a safer, more just and healthier place. They ensure British impact in international organisations, funds and programmes. Our leadership on the boards of the international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF is not trumpeted but is very real. A subordinated team would have meant a muffled message – no senior Minister means speaker slot No 35 in a United Nations meeting, and a reduction in UK leverage and visibility.

At the same time it is absolutely right that this is a key moment to think about the UK’s global impact, and how the four main means of projection – foreign, defence, development and trade and investment – function and can be strengthened. We need slow thinking on how to answer the big questions, not quick fixes to debatable problems.

The arrival of a new and energised government is an opportunity for big thinking, and a big plan. Adjustments to the machinery should follow from that. As William Hague has pointed out, it is a common historical mistake to think adjustments in government alone set a new path to policy – they don’t.

The big picture is the United Kingdom’s global projection. In a post-Brexit future we need to decide the best configuration of our people and resources in foreign policy, defence, trade and development. We need to decide how we best protect our interests while playing the role we want in global issues. That role includes development, humanitarian intervention, addressing climate change and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals  – all objects of our aid programme. Given the scale of global challenges, and the government’s level of ambition, we will probably need a modest increase in resources available to DFID, not a reduction.

A root and branch review of UK projection could lead to better structures and practice. This would no doubt address budgets,such as Official Development Assistance spend and defence. All sorts of results could come out of this, such as more deployment of programme experts (who are mostly in DFID ) across Whitehall to professionalise spend; or strengthening the trade and investment promotion effort based on real world knowledge, research, and networking. Efficiencies could come out of this as well as reallocation. However it is essential that this work is not approached as an exercise in deciding which limb to chop first.

During my time in the diplomatic service, I was an observer and a de facto leader of our development work in parts of Africa. My view is that our development work is an essential part of our projection in Africa, as is our work on defence and trade – both, incidentally, which are currently funded on a shoestring.

Private sector investment is a (if not the) main driver for development and should be better understood by foreign policy and development experts. One could make the same case for wider understanding of defence interests and development aims. At a staff level that is a training and experience challenge. It is about people not systems.

Cross-government cooperation works as well in the UK as in any other major developed country – and much better than in most. What we surely need is a policy discussion among Ministers at the top of each of the strands of UK projection, including development. And, please, a decent time in the job, including at Minister of State level.

Let’s hope our new leaders will empower Departments by coming up with a striking and forward-looking view of the UK’s place in the world, and through the application of policies designed to increase our international impact. We civil servants and diplomats respond to strong policy leadership, strong ideas and confident voices. Re-arranging the chairs first would reduce impact and opportunity for the UK.

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Tim Morris is a former British diplomat and former Head of Mission in The Democratic Republic of Congo and Ambassador to South Sudan and Ambassador to Morocco and Mauritania. He is now in the private sector, promoting investment in Africa.