MANCHESTER, United Kingdom — The UK Conservative Party conference drew to a close on Wednesday as the aid community began to absorb a range of new reforms, announcements and calls to action from government leadership.
The conference, an annual meeting of the UK’s governing party, began on Sunday with reports that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had hinted he wanted the Foreign Office to swallow up the Department for International Development — an idea swiftly rebutted by DFID ministers past and present in conversation with Devex. Later, Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel made surprise new commitments aimed at tying future multilateral aid to reforms at the United Nations. She announced a slew of new requirements aimed at improving accountability among DFID’s for-profit delivery partners.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May closed the conference on Wednesday pledging to change the aid rules to allow for spending part of the overseas aid budget on UK territories, following criticism of the government response to Hurricane Irma in the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, and Turks and Caicos.
Drive for UN reforms
Patel detailed new conditions placed on aid funding to UN bodies in a speech to party members on Tuesday, including a “regime of performance-related funding for the United Nations and its agencies,” with additional rules that will make UN funding from the British aid budget contingent on the UN “strengthening its child protection policies.”
Patel said: “For years the United Nations has ignored the shocking scandal of sexual abuse and the exploitation of children. This must end. I have told them that all future funding is subject to them implementing the highest standards of child protection; investigating all allegations; and securing prosecutions for those responsible for these crimes.”
In March, UN Secretary-General António Guterres formally acknowledged the “appalling crimes of sexual violence and exploitation” against children “committed under the UN flag.” UN staff were last year implicated in at least 145 cases of sexual exploitation, with 311 known victims.
Speaking to Devex at a side event shortly after Patel’s speech, Kirsty McNeill, Executive Director of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns at Save the Children UK, welcomed the new rules. “If we are going to have higher levels of conditionality, then greater child protection is essential,” McNeill said. “That was incredibly welcome to see from the Secretary of State.”
Sir Desmond Swayne, the Conservative politician and former DFID minister, told the same event that he had “moved heaven and earth to win reforms at the UN” while in office, although he added that, because DFID’s spending on administration costs was capped at 2 percent, the department inevitably had to rely on delivery partners whose staff were not under its direct control.
Aid to British Overseas Territories
The UK government has been heavily criticized for what was perceived as an inadequate response to the devastation wreaked across some of its overseas territories in the Caribbean by the recent Hurricane Irma. But Prime Minister May said she was “frustrated” that the UK’s aid budget could not be spent on disaster relief, since the islands’ incomes are too high to qualify for aid under rules set by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The UK government was already seeking to amend those rules in a number of ways.
In her speech on Wednesday, May said it is “absurd that international organizations say we can’t use the money to help all those that have been hit by the recent hurricanes in the British Overseas Territories.
“Many people on those islands have been left with nothing. And if we must change the rules on international aid in order to recognise the particular needs of these communities when disaster strikes, then that’s what we will do.”
However, Simon Kirkland, UK political advisor at Christian Aid, raised his concern that the speech could pave the way for aid money to be diverted.
“The Secretary of State today talked about making international aid rules more flexible to help British citizens, including in our overseas territories,” Kirkland told Devex. “It is brilliant that the UK is doing so much to help, but we don’t think the aid rules need to change in this respect.” He suggested that the government should use existing funds for relief efforts in the British Overseas Territories, as it would for any emergency project on the British isles.
Spending rules will be debated at the Development Assistance Committee meeting of the OECD later this month.
Mixed reaction to supplier reforms
Another key announcement made during the conference concerned DFID’s relationship with its private sector contractors.
In her address to party members, Patel claimed to have so far delivered “£500 million in savings” ($659m) across DFID, and said she has also expanded the department’s use of “payment by results,” whereby suppliers must demonstrate the success of their programmes before receiving the full payment for them.
Having faced criticism over high profits earned by some private contractors in the humanitarian and development sectors, Patel added that she is “setting out tough reforms” to “end the appalling practice of fat cats profiteering from the aid budget.”
The reforms include a new code of conduct with “legally enforceable sanctions” for suppliers that fall short of delivering value for money, as Devex reported.
“On my watch I will end the crony market where a handful of suppliers would win contract after contract, which blocked innovation and competition,” she said.
Although many in the aid sector welcomed the drive toward increased accountability for private contractors, some in the for-profit sector wondered whether the new reforms could deter small-to-medium companies and not-for-profits who are already struggling to meet DFID’s rigorous standards.
‘Focus on what we can’
In addition to Johnson’s, May’s and Patel’s speeches, conference delegates heard a sobering message from Rory Stewart, a joint minister at DFID and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, who addressed the Conservative Christian Fellowship.
One of the greatest challenges facing politicians working on global development, Stewart told the event, is “the gap between what governments feel they ought to do, and what we can do.”
“It is a question of working out how to distribute very scarce resources,” he continued. “[We must have] an awareness that we can only touch, even with the money we have, a fraction of the need that’s out there. We do not have a moral obligation to do what we cannot do. So let’s focus on what we can.”
Reflecting on the conference, Girish Menon, Chief Executive of Action Aid, told Devex that “whether it is us as a civil society organization or DFID, no one is saying that everything is perfect”. With a nod to the polarization of political debate after Brexit, Menon added: “Importantly, [Patel] set out the vision of Britain in the new political era, of being a leader in global development issues.”