Conservatives' ideas on aid effectiveness raise eyebrows

Andrew Mitchell would serve as secretary of state for international development should the Conservative Party claim victory in the U.K.’s May 6 general election. Above, Mitchell supports the Breast Cancer Campaign’s “Wear it Pink” day to help beat breast cancer. Photo by:

Conservative Party policies on international aid and development have not, until recently, been taken very seriously in the U.K.’s influential NGO sector. Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s were notorious for using the aid budget as an arm of foreign policy or as a means of winning business for British companies, whatever the apparent benefit to the receiving country.

The current leadership has, however, continued to issue increasingly detailed statements on the subject in the past few years, culminating in July 2009 with a 60-page “green paper” entitled “One World Conservatism.” Its themes can now be found in the Conservative manifesto for the U.K. general election, published April 13. The opinion polls may no longer be predicting a big Tory win, but the party is still regarded as a very strong contender to form the next government. As a result, these policies are now being taken very seriously indeed.

The attitude of much of the non-governmental sector toward a future Conservative administration can best be summarized as one of nervous anticipation. The party is saying a lot of the right things and clearly working hard to expunge memories of past conduct. But NGO insiders privately wonder just how deep these commitments go within the party – and what kind of priority they might enjoy after the election.

Furthermore, there are specifics of Tory proposals that are setting alarm bells ringing in some circles. But very few are willing to express these reservations publicly, particularly those who have traditionally been close to the Labour administration.

“Basically, people are terrified of upsetting the Tories at the moment,” says one NGO insider. “If they do win, we are wondering what it would take to get people to speak out.”

Pay for performance and a popular vote

But first, the positives. The Conservative manifesto makes a headline commitment to spend 0.7 percent of national income on aid. Indeed it closed a previous gap with Labour proposals by promising to make this legally binding “for every year from 2013.”

This led to a welcoming post by Barbara Stocking, chief executive of Oxfam, on the Tory-supporting Telegraph website, which was said to have ruffled some high-up Labour feathers.

There is also support for the Millennium Development Goals, and a commitment to “maintain an independent Department for International Development (DFID) and keep aid untied from commercial interests.”

Improving access to clean water, sanitation health care and education figure large, with a particular focus on women, children and disabled people. Malaria is the only cause singled out with a specific commitment, with £500 million a year to be devoted to tackling the disease.

The distinctive thrust of Conservative policy, however, is on aid effectiveness.

“Our bargain with taxpayers is this: in return for contributing your hard-earned money to helping the world’s poorest people, it is our duty to spend every penny of aid effectively,” proclaims a passage that appears in “One World Conservatism” as well as this month’s manifesto.

This will involve the establishment of an independent aid watchdog to carry out objective analysis of DfID projects and the introduction of “payment by results,” an approach outlined in more detail in last year’s green paper.

“Increasingly we will pay ‘cash on delivery’: giving an agreed amount to a recipient government for every extra child they get into school or every extra person who receives extra healthcare,” it says. “This will give British taxpayers confidence that their aid money is buying specific successful outcomes.”

If elected, the Conservatives would also create a new My Aid Fund through which “individual British people will be able to vote on where and how to spend aid money.” This fund will initially be set at £40 million.

Fears of micro-management

Concerns among NGOs revolve around this approach implying levels of micro-management from government that would deepen, not relieve, existing problems of wasted resources in developing countries through them having to conform to a multitude of reporting regimes.

It also suggests an approach that will place primacy on service delivery, at the expense of more fundamental structural reform. Influential Conservative policy thinkers have already expressed the view that charities should not be campaigning, leading to the fear that core funding to support such activities will not be forthcoming from a future Tory government.

“There is a risk here that the NGO development sector will see a serious reduction in a) money and b) political space, and with it the ability to bring about change,” one NGO policy expert said.

Nerves are not soothed by the fact that the manifesto section on development comes under the broader chapter heading “Promote our national interest,” suggesting development assistance may be subordinated to political and diplomatic interests. Nor, indeed by the language of free market faith that pervades “One World Conservatism.” Many campaigners regard the push for trade liberalization as having caused much poverty in the recent past, instead of alleviating it.

A more specific worry is over the Conservative aim of creating a new Stabilization and Reconstruction Force “to bridge the gap between the military and the reconstruction effort” when British forces are involved in post-conflict areas. The issues here are over the dilution of humanitarian space, with attendant risks to aid workers, and fears that parts of the aid budget would be diverted to the military.

“Anti-poverty campaigners have been shocked by the Conservative party’s admission that part of the aid budget under a Tory government could be used for British military operations in developing countries,” said Julian Oram, head of policy for the pressure group World Development Movement.

Finally, a Conservative government will establish a National Security Council headed by the foreign secretary but also including representatives from the Ministry of Defense and DfID. This is seen by some as a further threat to DfID’s independence.

Read more about the May 6 U.K. general election and the Liberal Democrats and Labour Party’s plans to reform foreign assistance.

About the author

  • John Davison

    John served as a Devex News correspondent based in London in 2010, covering DfID and U.K. aid reform. During a 10-year stint at the Sunday Times in the '80s and '90s, he was shortlisted as reporter of the year at the U.K. Press Awards, one of several accolades he has received. John has worked for the Independent and Conde Nast Traveller, among other publications. Most recently, he served as publisher of Christian Aid News, part of his role as head of media for Christian Aid.