UK ministers 'just cannot understand' merits of aid spending, says Rory Stewart

Rory Stewart, former U.K. secretary of state for international development. Photo by: Paul Clarke / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — Rory Stewart, former U.K. secretary of state for international development, has said it was “incredibly difficult” to convince his Cabinet colleagues of the merits of aid spending while he was in government.

At a time when public finances have been tight, Stewart added that politicians often preferred to avoid the topic.

Speaking during a panel discussion Friday, he said that “it’s very, very difficult, frankly,” to make the case for development aid. “Not only can I not convince the public; I can’t even convince colleagues around the Cabinet table.”

He continued: “They just cannot understand, in a world in which I can’t get £1.5 million [$1.9 million] to keep a national park open in Britain, why I have … a £400 million program in Pakistan. It’s too easy for people to say: ‘Wait a second — that’s 1% [of the] budget of the Pakistan army. Why are you doing this? Why are you giving these people money?’”

“It's very, very difficult to change voters' minds when they fundamentally have an antipathy towards [development aid].”

— Rory Stewart, former U.K. secretary of state for international development

While the aid budget was protected throughout the United Kingdom’s years of austerity, other government departments saw their budgets squeezed and public services were cut. Stewart said that while he was prisons minister in the Ministry of Justice — prior to being appointed to the Department for International Development in 2019 — his department was renting out its office space for extra revenue. Meanwhile, DFID was “happily writing £250 million checks for education programs in Ethiopia.”

Stewart — who is widely seen as a supporter of aid — dismissed the idea that more public communication was needed around development. Instead, he said the “chicken-and-egg” problem for politicians is that they do not often talk “about development aid … [because] voters don’t want to hear about it.”

He added: “It's very, very difficult to change voters' minds when they fundamentally have an antipathy towards it. … It feels often, to them, as if they are on the hook forever; the people they are giving money to are often, by definition, the least productive members of society — they may be elderly, they may be disabled people.

“It goes totally against what they [taxpayers] were brought up to believe, which is development investment is going to have this sort of magnificent transformatory effect — they build a road or something, and the economy takes off and they don’t need to be there any more.”

The highly “technocratic” nature of development programming also means that the views of taxpayers in donor countries tend to be ignored, Stewart added. “The British taxpayer [who] is being asked to provide … £14 billion of assistance per year has quite strong views themselves on what they do want to support and don’t want to support.”

He cited cash transfers as a technical “good buy” for development officials but “extremely difficult to explain to the taxpayer,” adding that “it goes totally against all that they were told about development.”

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.