A fitful start for Priti Patel's DfID

Priti Patel, U.K. secretary of state for international development. Photo by: British High Commission, New Delhi / CC BY-NC-ND

Priti Patel, the new head of the U.K. Department for International Development, rose to prominence as a vocal champion for Brexit. But she isn't sounding the call to break with European Union aid institutions just yet.

In her first parliamentary hearing as the new head of DfID, Patel addressed questions and concerns about what she plans to do with DfID’s 12 billion pound ($15.9 billion) aid budget, and what kind of relationship Britain will have with European Union development institutions as the country negotiates its exit from the EU. She allayed some fears about the U.K.’s continued support to the EU Development Fund, the EU’s largest aid vehicle of which the U.K. provides almost one-third of total funding.

“I don’t foresee any changes to our engagement in the fund,” she told members of the Parliament’s International Development Committee, with a caveat: “We’re only at the beginning of this process, but of course we will have an ongoing dialogue with partners at the commission and I fully recognize there’s no need to back away from places where we’re heavily invested.”

DfID is obliged under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to maintain funding to EU institutions in the two years leading to Brexit, but the U.K.’s contribution to the EDF is technically off-budget, or discretionary, making it vulnerable to cuts in the near term.

Asked if the U.K. would engage at all with EU aid institutions after Brexit, which won’t occur for at least another two years, she said, “I have no doubt that engagement will be ongoing. This absolutely does not mean we are walking away.”

Testifying alongside the U.K. Permanent Secretary for International Development Mark Lowcock, Patel reassured the IDC she also intends to uphold former Prime Minister David Cameron’s legacy commitment to spend 0.7 percent of the U.K.’s gross national income on aid.

Compared to Patel’s strong rhetoric in a Daily Mail editorial published Wednesday — in which she said she was “infuriated” along with U.K. taxpayers by the amount of aid wasted on “inappropriate projects,” and would “use our greater freedom from leaving the EU to deliver better value for U.K. taxpayers” — the DfID chief was more reserved in front of the members of parliament that make up the IDC.

Amy Dodd, director of the U.K. Aid Network, told Devex Patel’s stance in the hearing was a refreshing shift, and likely a relief for the EU aid community, alarmed by previous reports that Patel — who helped lead the campaign to leave the EU — would rush breaking with the EDF and trigger a shortfall for EDF projects.

“I know it’s something European colleagues are worried about, because it would leave a big funding gap,” Dodd told Devex.

“Working with the commission, we’re more joined up, and we’re more cost-effective because you don’t have everyone paying the administration costs of running a country office.”

Stephen Doughty, a member of Parliament and the IDC, told Devex after the hearing he was encouraged by Patel’s response.

“She’s being less ideological in her opposition to the EU and that’s a good thing,” he said.

“And I think it’s very intriguing that she didn’t rule out the possibility of using European Union-managed mechanisms in the future.”

On UNGA and the SDGs

Patel was forthcoming about the U.K.’s goals for this year’s United Nations General Assembly, which she will attend next week in New York. Not only did Patel clarify her agenda for the meeting, but she offered clues about how implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals will be managed in the U.K.

“I fully intend, and I’ve said before I will uphold [former Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening’s] focus on women and girls, and it will be a central theme at UNGA next week,” she said.

The crisis in Yemen, which Patel called a “forgotten issue,” will also be a top-line concern for the U.K. at UNGA, where she and her team will focus on pushing “other countries not giving their fair share to step up” their humanitarian funding. The official donor pledge for humanitarian resources in Yemen is currently 32 percent funded.

Finally, asked how DfID would contribute to the implementation of the SDGs, Patel surprised MPs by revealing that implementation would actually be managed by the Cabinet Office, the operational hub for the prime minister.

“This is important for us to know, because in the past it was coordinated out of DfID, so this is actually a shift,” Wendy Morton, MP and a member of the IDC, said at the hearing.

DfID aid reviews

Finally, as members of the aid community wait anxiously for the bilateral aid review, the multilateral aid review and the civil society partnership review, Patel offered little detail about when they might be published.

The reviews, which were scheduled to be published in October 2015, outline funding objectives and priorities for DfID’s suppliers and recipients. The last review was published in 2010. In the run-up to the replenishment of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS and Tuberculosis this weekend, the multilateral aid review carries special weight, as multilateral organizations such as the Global Fund typically shape budgets and anticipate funding shortfalls using feedback from the MAR.

Patel acknowledged the delay, and attributed it to the massive political shift that has occurred in the U.K. over the past three months.

“Quite a lot has happened, “she said. “We are working through the reviews and making changes on that basis.”

Asked if the aid community could expect the reviews by October, Patel said, “They should be almost ready to go by then.”

Patel told members of the IDC that despite the delay, she was in “constant contact” with the Global Fund and other organizations, in order to anticipate any changes in funding.

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 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.