The 'media minister': What Patel's leadership meant for UK aid

Priti Patel, former U.K. Secretary of State for International Development. Photo by: Ilyas Ahmed / United Nations

LONDON — The resignation of the U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel last week shocked the global development community, and brought to a close a development career that both began and ended in controversy.

Patel was forced to resign last week following revelations she held unauthorized meetings with Israeli officials during a holiday to the country in August and subsequently asked DFID staff to explore cooperation with the Israeli aid agency and army.

Penny Mordaunt, a pro-Brexit Conservative MP, and former minister of state in the Department of Work and Pensions, was announced as Patel’s replacement the following day.

In the role for just 16 months — one of the shorter tenures in the history of DFID leadership — Patel’s policies and priorities have nonetheless left a clear mark on the shape of U.K. aid, and one that is likely to persist in the short term, members of the DFID community told Devex.

In her resignation letter, she said it had been a “privilege to preside over the Department,” which she described as being staffed by “remarkable individuals.”

Offering reflections on her tenure, she wrote: “Our actions to reform the global aid system, invest in new projects that deliver better outcomes and support economic development will make a lasting positive difference to the poorest in the world.”  

Yet industry insiders spoke of their relief at Patel’s departure, saying that her previous anti-aid comments — it was reported that in 2013 Patel had suggested scrapping and replacing DFID — her personal leadership style, and rhetoric around “cutting aid waste” left many both within and outside her department deeply unhappy. Patel’s vociferous support for Brexit was also seen by some as coloring her approach to aid, especially the “aid for trade” and “aid in the national interest” agendas that blossomed under her leadership.

However, her stint as DFID chief was not without its successes, including steering the department safely through the implementation of the new cross-government aid strategy, a legacy of her predecessor, Justine Greening. She has also been praised for pushing for reforms of multilateral development institutions, and for seeking to professionalize the department’s management of for-profit contractors. Devex takes a look back at her tenure.

A media minister

Reflecting on Patel’s time at DFID, current and former DFID employees suggested that Patel sought to “maintain a high profile” in the U.K. media, compared with previous DFID chiefs. She assessed her value as a leader based on her ability to pivot to media rather than on development impact, they suggested.

Following a successful and very public campaign for Brexit, Patel won her first cabinet posting largely on political terms, as the prime minister sought to strike a balance between the pro- and anti-Brexit camps, setting the stage for a development career based more on showmanship and less on development impact.

“It was clear when she took the job that she didn’t have much interest in actually leading DFID,” one DFID civil servant told Devex on condition of anonymity to preserve professional ties. “I mean, she literally came out as anti-aid in comments to the media. So I think while we can criticize [Patel] for poor leadership, we should also more importantly criticize May for poor leadership in selecting a politically driven, explicitly anti-aid person to head DFID.”

“With the whole [situation of holding undisclosed meetings with Israeli leaders], I think it’s a bit unfair to criticize her for being exactly the person she was when May hired her.”

“While we can criticize [Patel] for poor leadership, we should also more importantly criticize May for poor leadership in selecting a politically driven, explicitly anti-aid person to head DFID.”

— Anonymous DFID civil servant

The DFID staffer said morale was “at an all-time low” in the department, adding that it has been on a downward slope since the appointment of Patel, who they said had “shut down the people who actually know about development.”

A former DFID official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, added: “She’s put an enormous amount of pressure on officials, not tried very hard, or been unable, to grasp the agenda.”

“She has wanted to play to her domestic audience constituency, rather than deal with international poverty reduction and the challenges that are faced.”

The former official said the classic example — and one that many at DFID continue to scratch their heads over — is her treatment of Yegna, a DFID-funded Girl Effect project in Ethiopia that uses pop music to raise awareness of sexual harassment, family planning, and other issues affecting women and girls. Although independently reviewed and deemed hugely successful both among Ethiopians and internationally, the Daily Mail newspaper dubbed the program the “Ethiopian Spice Girls” and declared it a waste of aid.

The DFID staffer said when the story first ran, Justine Greening, the previous secretary of state, “supported the program 100 percent,” and resisted the temptation to pull funding in the face of media pressure.

But a few months after Patel took over, DFID shut down the program.

“There’s clearly the ‘in the U.K. interest’ approach to international development, and there’s a line where that’s comfortable and a line where that’s uncomfortable. She’s too often gone on the uncomfortable side of that, as the humanitarian aid to the Israeli army in the Golan Heights [demonstrated], also closing down the Ethiopian Spice Girls project, which was actually a very successful project, independently reviewed, and was trying to deal with very conservative and misogynistic societies with pretty innovative methods,” the former official said.

“But she wasn’t interested in any of that, and wasn’t prepared to stand up for it.”

At the same time, Patel’s media savvy occasionally worked in the department’s favor, the DFID staffer said. Under Patel, for example, the DFID communications team launched a blog to rebuff claims of aid waste in the tabloid media.

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A couple of times, however, her zeal for controlling the story seemed to result in a twisting of the truth. For example, shortly after being forced to withdraw a proposal for aid rule changes at the high-level meetings of the Development Assistance Committee in Paris in the face of clear opposition, DFID issued a press release billing the attempt as a success and claiming Patel “achieved important progress,” which media organizations interpreted in their reporting as a successful bid to change the rules.

In reality, DAC members had agreed to begin discussions on a related but separate issue.

In addition, while many praised Patel for her swift crackdown on contractors after it was alleged in the Daily Mail that a top DFID supplier, Adam Smith International, had “conned MPs,” as the newspaper put it, the DFID civil servant said they believed Patel’s motives were less driven by increasing efficiency and more about “winning points with the media.”

Patel threw her weight behind the ASI investigation, seizing on the allegations — which were later largely disproved in an inquiry by the parliamentary International Development Committee — as another “opportunity to try and win over the tabloids,” the former DFID official said.

Supplier review

Still, perhaps Patel’s most substantive, if controversial, mark on the department will be the supplier review, launched in the wake of the ASI scandal. In a punitive and public letter to suppliers, Patel committed to reforming DFID’s engagement by increasing scrutiny and transparency in supplier accounting, driving down costs along the supply chain, and simultaneously opening up the market to small- and medium-sized suppliers and new entrants.

Launched last month, the jury is still out on the impact of the reforms, although some, such as Owen Barder, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, said Patel’s efforts to put “DFID’s procurement from its private sector partners on a more professional footing” deserves praise. 

But a member of the supplier community, who asked to remain anonymous to preserve business ties, claimed that early indications show the reforms are likely to stifle efficiency, advantage the old guard, and isolate the very group of new players Patel said she hoped to draw in.

“DFID wants to increase the number of SMEs; that’s a good thing. Diversify its marketplace; that’s a good thing. But actually everything it’s doing is making that really difficult,” the source said.

Requirements such as limited liability contracts throughout the supply chain and open-book accounting may be easier for the larger, well-heeled suppliers, the source said, but “if you’re a small charity based in Devon and Nepal, you can’t take on those kinds of burdens. It creates a massive constraint to who can actually work with DFID.”

Even for well-established organizations, the unusual demands effectively disincentivize working with DFID for all but those firms that hold the majority of their portfolios with the agency.

“Asking for the full cost of everyone’s board of directors, the full cost of everyone’s overhead and all the staff they have, that makes sense if you’re 100 percent delivering for DFID, but if you’re 5 percent delivering for DFID, or 20 percent, they’re just quite strange things to expect,” they said.

As a result, the source said some key players in the supplier community — specifically those less dependent on DFID for funding — are considering bowing out of future engagement with the donor. “On a selfish level, it might be nice if [our competitors] would walk away … but for the sector, it would be terrible. You want the best people.”

Consistent with her approach to the Civil Society Partnership Review and the Bilateral Development Review, Patel also shut down consultation in the supplier review, making clear early on that she would not consult with DFID’s current suppliers about potential reforms.

“Her desire to be tough on waste came at the expense of best practice consultation and engagement.”

— Jessica Toale, executive director of the Centre for Development Results

Jessica Toale, executive director of the Centre for Development Results, a support network for companies delivering aid, said Patel’s emphasis on increasing scrutiny often appeared politically motivated, and so it led to an almost-belligerent pursuit of “cutting waste.”

“Her desire to be tough on waste came at the expense of best practice consultation and engagement,” Toale told Devex, adding that “it undermined the trust in the important working relationships between DFID partners and civil servants. This trust will take time to rebuild.”

Cross government strategy

Amid rumors that Patel was conspiring to merge DFID with the Foreign Office, she created two co-ministerial positions to work across the departments, ostensibly to facilitate better coordination during work on the ground in partner countries. But Alistair Burt, one of the co-ministers, rebuffed the idea that Patel was working to merge the two departments. At the Conservative Party Conference in September, he told Devex “that’s not the goal,” and that “it was the prime minister’s idea to merge the posts.”

Still, Patel has struggled to explain DFID’s strategy for implementing aid across government, and reviews of the strategy by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, a House of Commons-owned aid watchdog, has expressed concern over the transparency of cross-government spending. Meanwhile, one cross-government aid fund managed by the National Security Council has been suspended and two others placed under review.

A tougher stance on multilaterals

Some within the aid community have credited Patel for shaking up DFID’s relationship with the 37 multilateral development agencies it contributes to. Barder said she was “bold in pushing for reform of international organizations.”

The Multilateral Development Review (MDR), published last December was tough on a number of agencies including UNESCO, but stopped short of withholding funding. As part of an effort to drive greater efficiency within multilaterals, Patel's DFID committed to channeling 30 percent of all funding to U.N. agencies through payment-by-results schemes. This was followed up by more tough talk from Patel during the U.N. General Assembly meetings in September, as the U.N. was rocked by a series of sexual abuse and exploitation scandals. During her speech, Patel threatened to withhold one-third of core funding to U.N. agencies unless “improved results and progress on reform priorities” were seen.  

Romilly Greenhill, U.K. director of the One Campaign, praised Patel for “pushing on key partners,” such as the multilateral development banks, to be more transparent and effective through the review. She described this as a “positive legacy” and something that Patel “really championed.”

However, one U.N. official currently working with DFID on a number of projects in Africa, who asked to remain anonymous for professional reasons, said that Patel’s reforms had made her department “incredibly slow,” explaining that “yes, we all want to be accountable and achieve results, but they are over-intellectualizing it and are less involved [as a result].” The source added that DFID’s engagement with their agency “couldn’t really get worse.”

Patel took a similar, although less critical, tone at the World Bank Annual Meetings held in October in Washington, D.C., where she called on the development finance institution to double its focus on the poorest countries, take greater risks, and stop competing with other development banks and agencies.

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However, at least one development finance institution appears to have benefited from Patel’s tenure — CDC — which under Patel saw its budget increased from 1.5 billion pounds to 6 billion pounds. While the CDC recapitalization process was started under Patel’s predecessor Greening, Patel pushed the funding envelope even further.

A ‘national interest’ agenda

Patel took over the reins at the height of the “migrant crisis” within Europe, driven by protracted conflicts in Syria and Yemen, as well as climate change and natural disasters. While DFID remained the world’s third-largest humanitarian donor under Patel, some aid experts described a growing trend of the U.K.’s humanitarian policy being dictated by an “aid in the national interest” agenda.

In September, DFID came out with a new humanitarian reform policy, which did little to allay those fears. On the one hand, it did recommit the government to the humanitarian principles enshrined in international law, but it also exposed the “tensions between the UK’s different motives and actions in the humanitarian space,” the Overseas Development Institute’s John Bryant said in a blog.  

DFID’s stance on migration has raised particular concerns. While the new humanitarian policy does talk about the issue of protracted displacement, its position is “undermined by the language of containment: of keeping affected people within their own regions,” Bryant wrote. While the U.K. talks about supporting host countries and communities, it is silent on the question of its own responsibilities as a host country.

“We were pleased to see a re-affirmation of the humanitarian principles, less pleased to see the policy on migration stress yet again that it is predicated on keeping refugees as near their countries of origin as possible.”

— Anne Street, head of humanitarian policy at CAFOD

“We were pleased to see a re-affirmation of the humanitarian principles, less pleased to see the policy on migration stress yet again that it is predicated on keeping refugees as near their countries of origin as possible,” Anne Street, head of humanitarian policy at CAFOD, said about the policy.

While both of Patel’s Conservative predecessors, Justine Greening and Andrew Mitchell, frequently made the case for “aid in the national interest” — a departure from the approach of DFID’s first leader, Clare Short — Patel took the argument a step further. Building on her pro-Brexit views, she was the first international development secretary to advocate using “aid for trade,” specifically to leverage the U.K.’s aid relationships to get more advantageous trade deals with developing countries for the U.K. post-Brexit.

In practice, however, together with other government departments, Patel set out tentative plans to maintain the duty-free, quota-free access to U.K. trade currently enjoyed by the poorest 48 countries after Brexit. The government also committed to exploring the possibility of expanding the arrangement to other developing countries.

Aid reviews

Under Patel, DFID also forged ahead with reforms to the way funding is awarded and delivered to recipients across the board. This included controversial reforms to the way aid is spent through NGOs, as outlined in the civil society partnership review released in November 2016.

NGOs and suppliers said reviews under Patel, who oversaw the completion of the Civil Society Partnership Review, the Multilateral Development Review, and the Bilateral Aid Review, marked a stark departure from her predecessors, completing the CSPR and BAR in particular with “very little CSO consultation,” according to one.

The new funding streams — UK Aid Connect, UK Aid Direct, UK Aid Match, and UK Aid Volunteers — offer a simpler menu, but their introduction left many concerned for smaller, developing country-based CSOs. The main stream, UK Aid Direct, saw an increase in the overall size of grants available, despite Patel’s commitment to draw in more small-to-medium firms. At the same time, UK Aid Connect encourages organizations to form consortia with U.K. institutions, an appealing prospect for organizations that are new to DFID funding, but one that also raises questions about tied aid.

Another stream introduced under Patel — the Small Charities Challenge Fund — also raised eyebrows about inclusivity among DFID delivery partners. While the fund targets organizations with budgets of less than 250,000 pounds per year, only U.K.-registered charities are eligible to bid.

Based on the new funding streams, Patel’s apparent aversion to consultation, and early reactions to her supplier reforms, one of the most consistent themes of her legacy — according to current and former DFID staff, and members of the U.K. and international aid community — seems to be a tendency toward policies that verge on the exclusionary. 

At least in the short term, the wheels set in motion by Patel are likely to continue, observers said, but as one DFID staffer put it in an email, it’s “still early days, and we are hopeful that the change will be positive.”

Read more Devex coverage on the future of DFID.

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About the authors

  • Molly%2520anders%2520cropped

    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.
  • Edwards sopie

    Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.