LONDON — Stephen Twigg, the outgoing chair of the U.K. International Development Committee, has said he fears British aid is losing its poverty focus under the influence of increasingly “isolationist” domestic politics, and that the independence of the Department for International Development is by no means guaranteed.
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In a wide-ranging interview with Devex’s editor-in-chief Raj Kumar in London on Wednesday, Labour politician Twigg — who has said he will not stand for parliament again after the next election — outlined a range of challenges facing U.K. aid, leading to concerns about the quality, volume, and influence of the aid budget in a post-Brexit world.
He added that “isolationist” thinking and a “collapse in trust” toward institutions and politicians are affecting all parties.
“I have no doubt … that this cuts across traditional Labour and Conservative divides … What will be important for those of us who care about development is that we can fashion a case for it in the context of Brexit,” the member of Parliament for Liverpool West Derby said.
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He expressed concern over the “aid in the national interest” justification for aid — currently popular in U.K. government rhetoric — saying that it runs the risk of “taking [aid] policy in the wrong direction,” to a place where “poverty reduction [is] no longer ... at the core of what we’re spending.” Further, national interest arguments are not necessarily an effective way of persuading voters to support the aid budget, he said, citing research showing that moral arguments hold more sway with the public.
Twigg, who has been chair of IDC — the cross-party parliamentary committee tasked with scrutinizing U.K. aid spending — since 2015, said that DFID and the aid budget appear safe for now, but that it may not last. He has seen five different international development secretaries during his time leading the committee, most recently Alok Sharma.
“Sharma has used his first couple of months to make some powerful arguments in defence of U.K. aid … but the Prime Minister is on record as having supported putting DFID back into the Foreign & Commonwealth Office [and] I have no reason to suppose he has changed his mind … I think it could go either way,” Twigg said.
The IDC chair also warned that while he doubts the current government will move to scrap the target to spend 0.7% of the country’s national income on aid, he thinks it will try and “dilute” it by increasing the portion spent through other government departments or trying to broaden the definition of what counts as aid — something currently set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, although some U.K. ministers have threatened to break with those rules.
“It is entirely unclear whether, with the change of government, we are going to see a further attempt to reduce DFID’s proportion [of the aid budget],” he said, adding that he thinks DFID should keep a large share and have greater oversight over what is spent by other agencies. An ever-growing portion of the aid budget has been shifted away from DFID since 2015, under the U.K.’s cross-government aid strategy.
“DFID should be in the driving seat for all ODA spending … not necessarily delivering it all but signing it off,” he said. IDC made a recommendation to this effect last year, but it was rejected by the government.
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Asked about the swathe of new commitments to climate change and biodiversity announced by DFID in recent weeks, Twigg said he was concerned that some of the funding — notably £1 billion for a new cross-government Ayrton Fund to support British organizations working on climate mitigation technologies — could “herald a return to tied aid.”
He also said that diverting more of the aid budget to support climate and biodiversity could create an “opportunity cost,” especially if it means funds are taken out of DFID’s human development programs.
On how Brexit could impact U.K. aid, Twigg said he feared that a Conservative government could opt to sever ties with the European Development Fund and European aid departments, because it has “EU in the title.” This would have negative impacts on U.K. NGOs and threaten the U.K.’s global reputation and influence on aid.
“I don’t think there’s anything inevitable about it, although it is one of the risks,” he said.