2 former DfID chiefs on Syria, the private sector and the future of UK aid

Clare Short and Andrew Mitchell, former U.K. secretaries of state for international development. Photos by: Chatham House and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance/DfID / CC BY

Former U.K. Department for International Development chiefs Clare Short and Andrew Mitchell have just returned from a trip to the Syrian border with Turkey, where they visited with nongovernmental organizations and U.K. aid partners operating in and around the embattled Middle Eastern country.

“What we saw was fascinating, but also equal parts uplifting and horrifying,” Mitchell told Devex.

Testifying in front of Parliament’s International Development Committee in the weeks after the trip, Mitchell and Short expressed concern over a range of issues, not least of all their worry that Muslim charities — due to their religious affiliation — are falling victim to unfair discrimination by the donors and financial institutions that are meant to support them.

“In terms of Britain’s anti-terror approach, if we are alienating some of the best organizations which the Muslim community is really proud of and we know have a really good quality record, it is very foolish,” Short said, speaking to the IDC at an evidence hearing on “the global humanitarian system.”

The chiefs named Islamic Relief as one victim of discrimination. Among the largest Muslim organizations in the United Kingdom, Islamic Relief implemented about $4.5 billion worth of projects on DfID’s behalf in 2013, largely in conflict zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In January, the British bank HSBC closed Islamic Relief’s accounts out of concern the organization was funding terrorist activity. The U.K. Charity Commission subsequently placed Islamic Relief under review, only to later clear it of all suspicion.

“At the moment it’s having ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islamic’ or something in the title of an organization that makes you instantly suspect, and then smear stories and bank action following that makes life enormously difficult for good organizations. We can do better than that,” Short told the IDC.

Talks with DfID about doing more to support aid partners experiencing bias are “ongoing,” Mitchell told Devex.

Fixing the humanitarian system

Short, who oversaw DfID when it gained full departmental status and who became the first cabinet-level secretary of state for international development, also shared her thoughts with the committee about the U.K.’s priorities for next month’s World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul.

Conflict resolution is a key area for improvement in the global humanitarian system, Short said, pointing to the U.K. as a potential leader in driving improvements.

“It seems to me that the U.K. could be a leader here, but it would be a different approach to our foreign policy, [which] tends to follow the U.S. foreign policy,” Short said. “We could bring something very special to this, given the range of capacities, the seat on the Security Council, the quality of our diplomats and the quality of our development, but it would be a rejigging.”

In a white paper produced with the Treasury Department, DfID identified “building resilience, smarter financing and reform, a focus on women and girls and protection of civilians, and international humanitarian law,” as action items for the summit.

Short warned, however, that the cross-government strategy for achieving more comprehensive development outcomes should not be taken as a definitive answer to complex questions about the U.K.’s role in international development.

“The assumption in the white paper that because you set up some of the machinery to coordinate Whitehall means that it is well done is not necessarily the case,” she told the IDC. “It is about where Britain could play a really important contribution but it would take a rethinking of what is our most important role in the world and that is a big question.”

Echoing Minister for International Development Desmond Swayne’s commitment last month to leverage the U.K.’s funding power in reforming the international humanitarian system, Short expressed support for focusing reforms on the U.N. system and within “the big international NGOs.”

“It is not easy to pull off,” she said. “However, we ought to be going for it because it is more efficient and it will achieve more.”

Aid for security’s sake

With the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s recent redefinition of official development assistance, the U.K. and other donors are directing more aid money to security-related costs. The new U.K. aid strategy, for example, invests more in cross-government funds that combine aid mandates across health, conflict resolution, innovation, business and other sectors.

Cooperation across government on aid priorities is nothing new, Mitchell told Devex. During both Mitchell and Short’s tenure as head of DfID, he said, the agency laid groundwork for such coordination, particularly in the areas of peace and conflict resolution.

At the same time, Short indicated that such collaboration wasn’t always successful. The Foreign Office “deeply resented” their loss of aid budget control when DfID came into being, Short told the IDC.

“They have superb diplomats. They are not good at managing money,” she said, pointing to the conflict pool, a joint funding mechanism to prevent conflicts, which she described as a “useless instrument” and “not very well managed.”

Enshrining a cross-government approach in the new U.K. aid strategy — which will see 28 percent of aid spent through other government departments, up from 15 last year — has led some to question whether national interests are playing too great a role in the aid strategy, and could potentially dilute the U.K.’s broader mandate of poverty reduction.

Asked how the shift will protect the world’s poorest, Mitchell pointed out that “conflict enshrines poverty. You cannot have development if you have conflict and, therefore, trying to build resilience and governance structures in conflict-prone countries is at the heart of development.”

Mitchell and Short both pointed to the crucial role played by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact — the aid watchdog tasked with ensuring aid transparency — in making sure aid distributed across government lives up to DfID’s record for transparency.

A new frontier for private investment

One of the former aid chiefs is optimistic about the growth of DfID’s private sector arm and the department’s potential to shift more of its portfolio into business partnerships and investment.

With close to a $1 billion in new investment from DfID last year and a new mandate to invest only in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the CDC Group, the DfID-owned development finance institution, is proving a worthwhile experiment for the U.K.’s aid strategy, according to Mitchell.

Microfinance, private sector investment and the CDC combine to create “an extremely powerful development agenda,” Mitchell told the IDC, adding that both his and Short’s administrations sought to do more with CDC capital as “seed-corn money to encourage business.”

“In 50 years’ time, I have no doubt that the CDC will be seen as the main British actor in terms of international development, more so than the department,” he said.

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DfID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDfID.

About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.