New DfID head divides UK aid community over trade focus

Priti Patel, U.K. secretary of state for international development. Photo by: Michael Dean / OECD / CC BY-NC

Six weeks after the historic Brexit vote, the U.K. development community is still piecing together what aid will look like under Prime Minister Theresa May, who has promised a new, more trade-focused Department for International Development.

Many breathed a sigh of relief last week when May publicly confirmed her government’s commitment to spending 0.7 percent of gross national income on aid — dispelling rumors that the aid budget worth 11 billion pounds ($14.6 billion) is on the chopping block. But anxieties rose again when the new head of DfID, Priti Patel, reportedly met with officials of the U.K.’s new Department for International Trade to discuss how aid commitments could be leveraged to negotiate trade deals with emerging countries.

A source close to Patel said the U.K.’s aid cooperation offers “excellent access to foreign leaders,” which can be used to broker trade deals at a time when Britain’s post-Brexit trade outlook is still uncertain.

Patel, a vocal proponent for leaving the European Union, emphasized in her first statements in the new role her intention to use aid to “tackle the great challenges of our time: poverty, disease and the causes of mass migration, while helping to create millions of jobs in countries across the developing world — our trading partners of the future.”

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Aid practitioners are divided over Patel’s trade focus. Some think trade rhetoric could sway aid skeptics by offering post-Brexit damage control, while others ask whether bartering aid for trade is even legal. Still some wonder if a pivot toward trade is a positive early step toward the U.K.’s new cross-government aid strategy, which aims to spend more aid through other departments such as the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Health and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

“We’ve seen the aid strategy push a lot of aid money to other departments, and we want to see a cross government approach to development that has tax, trade, migration policy working together,” Charlie Matthews, head of policy at ActionAid International told Devex.

If she proves an unlikely advocate for DfID, Patel’s pro-Brexit past could help cement support for aid. Matthews said she felt Patel’s widely reported statements about “scrapping” DfID were “sensationalized,” and pointed out that an emphasis on trade “can be a really good thing, it just depends on how it's done” and how Patel uses “her place at the cabinet table.”

“This is a big opportunity for Patel in that sense.”

Out of the frying pan, into the fire

Patel arrives at DfID only months after the launch of the new cross-government aid strategy, which has seen departments with little to no experience in development tasked with spending one of the most scrutinized aid budgets in the world — unaccustomed to some of the international regulations and accountability standards that come with aid.

The as-yet unpublished briefs of DfID’s new ministerial team will likely contain some clues about how the department will work with their trade-focused counterparts, for instance one minister could be given the role of trade liaison, Matthews pointed out, which would be a first for a DfID minister and likely signal a more meaningful shift.

In order for DfID to replicate its success in other parts of government, Aly-Khan Jamal, partner at Dalberg Global Development Advisors, said Patel must address a fundamental difference in the way these departments will approach aid.

“DfID has a great legacy for being a very delivery-centric organization,” he said. “Even though it doesn’t do a lot of delivery itself, it has built an industry that does, [the Foreign and Commonwealth Office] on the other hand does much more on policy and government-to-government engagement, not so much on delivery of programs at all, it’s just not their role,” he said.

Jamal explained that in order to implement aid well, departments must “bring their strengths to the table,” and in the case of those offices that are new to aid, government officials shouldn’t expect departments to develop overnight “more delivery capabilities and ability to understand how to measure the impact of programs, because that may not necessarily be the best way.”

“It’s of prime importance that Priti Patel start to articulate how it’s all going to hang together, rather than let it organically figure itself out,” he said.

Lingering concerns

Some in the development community struggle to divorce Patel from her previous campaigns against aid, but hesitate to criticize the new chief in the runup to DfID’s soon-to-be-released aid reviews. The Civil Society Partnership Review, which sources in the aid community believe is due out any day now, will outline DfID’s strategy for engaging civil society organizations, including the instruments by which it delivers aid through civil society.

One U.K.-based charity executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preserve working relationships with the U.K. government, told Devex, “Considering the sensitivity of the upcoming [Civil Society Partnership Review] no national or international NGO is going to be frank with you about the disappointment we all felt with naming Priti Patel secretary of state.”

“It was a challenging appointment, is the word I would use,” he said, pointing to her previous statements about aid, and in particular to Patel’s role as a frequently cited government source during a long-running media audit of charity CEO salaries in 2012 and 2013. Patel helped compile figures and criticized executive salaries in excess of 100,000 pounds per year in the charity sector. She said the numbers should call “into question how charitable funds are spent.”

Still the source believed the U.K.’s 0.7 commitment is safe under the current government — at least for the time being.

“I think we all assume the same thing, I don’t think [May] is going to repeal 0.7 in the next couple of years, but this certainly opens the door for a new Conservative manifesto to reduce aid significantly over the next four-10 year period, I would be very surprised if that didn’t happen,” he said.

The DfID effect

Even those concerned about Patel’s views acknowledge that DfID has a history of converting past, aid-wary government officials who have been put in charge of the department.

“Having been given a very substantive cabinet brief, Patel may actually start to feel more positively and realize, that as a politician it’s not actually in her own interests to do down her own department and brief,” the charity executive said.

“A number of secretaries have come in with a lot of skepticism about DfID programs and left their brief much more positive and I think we all hope that that happens with Priti Patel,” he said.

In the early days of Justine Greening’s tenure at DfID, for example, many expressed concern amid reports that the Conservative Member of Parliament didn’t want the job.

But as years passed, Greening developed a reputation as a tenacious advocate for aid, particularly for its importance in advancing the roles of women and girls in the developing world.

“I don’t think anyone would doubt today [Greening’s] level of commitment to aid and her belief that aid works,” Matthews said.

Likewise, when Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell took the helm at DfID, many in the aid community were surprised at the appointment, given Mitchell’s lack of experience in the development field. Despite his background, Mitchell was instrumental in reaching the United Nation’s 0.7 percent pledge for aid spending and remains a bipartisan advocate for aid.

Both the aid reviews, and details about the new development ministerial team roles — due anytime now — will shed some light on Patel’s next steps and how DfID’s trade cooperation will look in practice.

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.