Aid divisions emerge as UK election looms

Tamsyn Barton of Bond for International Development; Lord Ray Collins of the Labour Party in the House of Lords; Baroness Shas Sheehan of the Liberal Democrats Party in the House of Lords; Ishbel Matheson of the Overseas Development Institute; and Andrew Mitchell, former U.K. secretary of state for international development. Photo by: Molly Anders / Devex

Read Devex’s post-election coverage: UK aid prospects brighten slightly in immediate election aftermath

The United Kingdom’s development community is speculating about the future of aid ahead of a snap election this week, with key questions surrounding aid rules, the impact of Brexit and effective defense of aid spending.

Politicians came together last week to discuss the community’s most salient concerns during a debate hosted by the Overseas Development Institute and Bond, the U.K. NGO network. Those concerns include a potential break with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s aid rules — proposed by the Conservative Party — and the effectiveness of private contractors.

In addition, as the country grappled with its third terror attack in three months this weekend, politicians seem keen to frame aid as a potential deterrent of extremism at home and abroad, bolstering the Conservatives’ case for more security-related aid spending.

The Conservative Party now leads by only four percentage points, according to the latest YouGov poll, throwing into doubt the landslide victory expected when Prime Minister Theresa May called for the election in April. Labour, the leftist opposition party, is closing the gap, with only a few days left until the vote on June 8.

With the unpredictability of recent votes, many in the sector are daring to picture a change in leadership at the Department for International Development, currently headed by Secretary of State Priti Patel. This may be the case even without a change in government, as Conservative Member of Parliament Andrew Mitchell — who has previously held Patel’s job — seems to be repositioning himself in the public eye, ahead of a possible Cabinet reshuffle.

“I think we’re going to politically be on a different planet after June 9, and it remains to be seen who will be Secretary of State for International Development,” Baroness Shas Sheehan, a member of the House of Lords and international development spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, a centrist party, told Devex. “I expect Andrew is lobbying hard.”

Aid worth defending

“It’s an extraordinary thing that Britain’s leadership ... in elevating the social condition of people living in desperate poverty around the world is lauded and respected everywhere except in parts of Britain.”

—  Andrew Mitchell, Conservative MP

Politicians from across the political spectrum defended Britain’s aid budget at last week’s debate. The country is one of just six currently reaching the United Nations’ recommended level of aid spending, at 0.7 percent of gross national income — a figure that both main parties have committed themselves to in their election manifestos.

However, they also pointed to varying public attitudes towards aid, and the difficulties this can present in defending the budget.

“It’s an extraordinary thing that Britain’s leadership and involvement and engagement in elevating the social condition of people living in desperate poverty around the world is lauded and respected everywhere except in parts of Britain,” said Mitchell. “I think we need to do a lot better.”

He referred to the controversy surrounding Yegna, an Ethiopian pop group promoting women’s rights and family planning which lost its DFID funding in late 2016, after a campaign against it by the British tabloid press. The campaign suggested the project was a waste of aid money — despite it having demonstrated significant impact.

Mitchell described the campaign and the decision to cut the program as “an absolute and total disgrace. This was a private sector project, which the British taxpayer supported on the basis that we were ... getting a great deal more bang for our buck by supporting it. It was a tragedy — it should’ve been much more defended,” he said.

His comments were interpreted by many at the event as a jab at the current DFID leadership. Yet Mitchell offered few solutions for resolving U.K. aid’s public relations problem. During his time at DFID, he cut domestic education programs aimed at teaching people about aid. Asked whether he might consider reinstating them, he replied that “the development budget is meant to be [used on] educating the poorest people in the world and not on education in Britain, so I do not think it’s a good use of development spending.”

Only representatives of the Labour Party pointed to the Sustainable Development Goals as a potential route for better demonstrating aid effectiveness. Lord Ray Collins, the Labour spokesperson on international development, said he was “disappointed that the government has not done enough to bring the SDGs into the debate in parliament about how we evaluate the effectiveness of aid.” He added that he believes such alignment would allow practitioners to more tangibly grapple with the “leave no one behind” policy.

Security and the OECD aid rules

While committing to the 0.7 percent benchmark, the Conservative manifesto also sets out plans to change the rules for ODA spending established by the OECD. But aid organizations worry that changes to the rules around security and military coordination in fragile contexts could result in a loss of aid accountability, and leave the aid budget vulnerable to raids by other government departments.

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In a joint statement, U.K. NGO leaders said that: “Keeping this promise [of focusing on the world’s poorest] is the right thing to do. It reflects the values of the millions of people around the U.K. who support our organisations and those of a bigger Britain of which we can all be proud.”


“The OECD rules exist to ensure that this is the case and any changes risk a dangerous dilution of their impact,” they added.

Mitchell offered some clarification of how the Conservatives would go about changing the rules, and to what extent the changes could impact the way aid is spent by donors.

“There’s a very tight definition of what conflict resolution expenditure is eligible under the 0.7 [percent] and what is not, and I think that definition needs to be tweaked,” he said. Mitchell used the example of British military intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000, and France’s intervention in Mali in 2012, when armed troops stymied emerging conflicts — something Mitchell says should have been paid for, at least in part, from the aid budget. He has also argued that some of the military expenditure in Afghanistan could have been shared between aid and military budgets.

“My advice to my many friends in the development world is, rather than say[ing] no to what is a Tory commitment to renegotiate an aspect of these rules with the OECD, we should get involved in seeing if we can improve them,” he said.

The rules — which were already tweaked in February 2016 at the encouragement of the U.K. government — currently allow some flexibility for spending ODA on security and military engagement, as well as costs related to violent extremism. As they stand, the rules prohibit any use of ODA for financing military equipment or services, or “as a vehicle to promote providers’ security interests,” according to a communique from the development assistance committee.

But both Mitchell and, more hesitantly, Labour’s Lord Collins, made the case for further adjustments to the rules.

“If the development community draws a line in the sand and says ‘no change to the OECD rules,’ I think that would be a tragedy because then I think the system could break,” Mitchell said. “We have to get involved in working out: What is a genuinely incremental development action which the military may take, and which should come in part from the development budget? I think that’s a good debate. There are some very brilliant people in the development world who will be able to engage in that debate and make sure we get it right,” he said.

Still, Mitchell softened slightly the Conservative manifesto commitment to scrap the rules if the DAC refuses to agree, and stressed that even if the government tried to abandon the rules, “that will be a matter for parliament to decide.”

Collins said that “at the moment, I’m totally committed to the rules as they are” but agreed that further changes to the DAC rules could be a good idea, on the grounds that “without peace and security you can’t have development.”

However, Baroness Sheehan of the Liberal Democrats suggested that changing the rules could dilute the accountability of existing mechanisms for cross-sector security spending, namely the Prosperity Fund and the Conflict, Security and Stability Fund.

“These different pots of money are not easily traceable,” she told Devex. “I can’t find out how the money’s being spent, if it’s being spent at all. And that’s the second danger: I think the foreign office and the [ministry of defence] will be in paralysis because at the moment they have to go through ODA rules,” she said. Sheehan claimed that these departments aren’t as adept as DFID at complying with ODA rules and that they “just don’t have the expertise or the personnel.”

As a result, “I think that money will just be siphoned off to the two other departments,” she said.

But both the main parties point to this type of spending as critical for countering extremism abroad, as well as for preventing acts of terror domestically.

Private sector controversy

The role of the private sector in U.K. aid was another key subject of discussion. While some parties agreed with the current government’s “crackdown” on contractors — lately seen as a drain on the transparency of U.K. aid following alleged misconduct by one of its major contractors, Adam Smith International — Mitchell stood up for private sector firms, criticizing the agency for letting them “hang in the wind” in the face of negative press attention. “I think that actually the contractors have had a pretty raw deal,” he said.

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While there may have been failings, Mitchell said that the government or development community should defend contractors against aggressive press attention if they have won a competitive bidding process as the best value for money for taxpayers.

He added that whether or not a project is successful, DFID must be ready to either “take the plaudits” or to “put hands up” when things have gone wrong.

By contrast, the Liberal Democrats advocated for more scrutiny of private sector contractors, while Labour’s Lord Collins said the party would “absolutely” support contractors — on the condition of proper monitoring.

“I think one of the biggest concerns that we have is the capacity of the department ... to actually maintain and monitor and properly evaluate impact,” he said. “Scrutiny from ICAI [an independent commission tasked with scrutinizing aid spending] is absolutely vital across the board, but we are now in this situation where we have external consultants monitoring private contractors, and that cannot be good for our development spend in ensuring it is effective and directed.” 

Brexit and the aid and trade ‘opportunity’

The U.K. development community is also grappling with the potential impact of Brexit. Parties offered their take on how to prioritize development goals as the U.K. government negotiates new trade deals after leaving the European Union, and considered DFID’s role in lobbying for developing countries’ interests in the coming negotiations.

While some developing countries currently enjoy duty-free, quota-free access to U.K. markets under the European Partnership Agreements, many in the community view Brexit as an opportunity to expand the practice — boosting trade for the least-developed countries and possibly expanding the U.K.’s menu of options for low- and middle-income countries shopping for updated trade agreements. While Labour’s manifesto commits to this type of access as a minimum requirement for negotiating with least developed countries, the other party manifestos do not. Nonetheless, party representatives at last week’s debate appeared to be in agreement on the issue.

“We set up a fund, not very well-known, that was designed specifically to help poor countries negotiate decent trade agreements, and I hope you’ll accept that that is testament to the government’s good intentions not on negotiating trade deals which are purely for Britain’s advantage, but decent trade deals, which we all know enrich everyone rich and poor alike,” the Conservative Party’s Mitchell said. “If you’re asking me, I would’ve thought [committing to duty-free and quota-free access for LDCs] would be one of the first things we would do.”

Meanwhile, the Labour manifesto places a strong emphasis on negotiating development-conducive trade deals, also emphasizing the U.K.’s role as an aid donor to improve working conditions in overseas industries and bolstering the influence of trade unions in developing countries.

“African countries fear access to their markets would undermine the development of their capability to trade, and that’s why I think we still need to assert very strongly that these countries need more than simply free trade agreements,” Lord Collins said. “You seem to hear from other politicians that we do need to protect and develop, not simply say we’re going to send all our goods into your country and you can send them to us. Africa is unique in those circumstances and as we move forward in Brexit we need to be very clear about that,” he said.

Patrick Grady from Scotland’s main party, the Scottish National Party, also pointed out the need for “these trade deals to be climate-friendly,” especially considering the United States’ recent withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change. The decision “does mean that other countries need to step up and the Scottish government is committed,” Grady said.

Others seemed aligned with Grady’s view, albeit without offering next steps for the U.K. and international community to possibly compensate for U.S. emissions.

On other issues raised during the debate — including U.K. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, tax havens and the exploitation of tax systems in some low-income countries — there was less agreement, and the Conservatives’ Mitchell found himself standing alone on some of these issues.

Nonetheless, his authoritative performance at the debate and his critique of recent DFID decisions may give credence to rumors in the development community that he harbors plans to return to the U.K. aid agency.

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.

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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.