UK rolls back ultimatum on aid rule changes ahead of DAC meeting

U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel. Photo by: Ministry of Defence / CC BY

LONDON — Head of the U.K. Department for International Development Priti Patel has appeared to soften her pledge to abandon internationally agreed aid rules if she cannot convince members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to change them.

Speaking at an evidence session in the House of Lords on Tuesday, Patel revealed some shake-ups in her priorities for next week’s meeting of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, the body that sets the aid rules, in Paris.

Patel seemed to drop her previous commitment to seek more changes to the rules around using aid for military and security costs, months after DAC chair Charlotte Petri Gornitzka told Devex that changes were not up for discussion.”

“The rules regarding security-related costs are not up for discussion,” she said in an interview in February. “There are other items on the table right now within the DAC regarding in-country refugee costs and private sector instruments, for instance.”

Instead, Patel said Tuesday she would seek to change the rules that prevent donors from spending ODA in high-income countries that might be vulnerable to climate-related disasters, following criticism of the U.K. government’s response to Hurricane Irma in the British Overseas Territories. It later emerged that the U.K. could not draw on its aid budget to support relief efforts as the islands are too wealthy to qualify under existing DAC rules.

Patel also appeared to soften the government’s pledge — included in its election manifesto earlier this year — to pull out of the DAC if its proposed changes cannot be agreed.

She said in an interview with the Daily Mail on June 3, “We are in a very strong position to continue to show leadership in international development, through rule changes in my view. But if we don’t get everything we want we can’t wait for the world to catch up — we have to lead. We will continue to show leadership in development, either on our own or with our partners around the world.”

But on Tuesday, Patel emphasized the importance of consensus, telling legislators that “It’s not about leaving the DAC.”

“We value the role of the international institutions, and that’s why we will be challenging all of them as well, and will raise the chance to look at redefinitions or raise new areas of concerns or issues. So this is not about leaving the DAC; this is about U.K. influence and making the case for change and reform,” she said.

Patel told the committee the ODA rules “were established 40 years ago and need to keep pace with the changing world.” While the aid rules were first established 48 years ago, an OECD spokesperson confirmed, they have in fact been amended more than a dozen times, as recently as last year.

The U.K. is among several DAC members that successfully lobbied to soften the restrictions on using aid for security and counterterrorism costs at last year’s DAC high-level meeting. In an interview in February, DAC chair Gornitzka told Devex the committee “does not want to be taking new decisions every year; that would be a weakness in itself.”

In addition to changing the rules around wealthy, climate change-vulnerable island states’ access to ODA, Patel said she hopes to change the rules to incorporate “some of the higher standards the U.K. has on transparency, for example, on gender equality as well, [and] doing more to recognize [Sustainable Development Goal] 16 on peacekeeping.”

Asked if she will follow through on pledges to leave the DAC if the ODA definition is not revised, Patel said: “I don’t think it will come to that, and I just want to emphasize to the committee as well that we are great supporters of the rules-based system.”

Key DAC decisions on the scope of ODA. Source: OECD

Are the ODA rules climate resilient?

DAC members — who collectively account for about 90 percent of ODA globally — will meet in Paris on October 30-31 for the group’s high-level meeting.

Patel said she will try to convince colleagues there to change the rules around the ODA eligibility for small island states that are vulnerable to climate change-related disasters. While many DAC members are open to hearing arguments for a more flexible provision in the rules to allow for increasingly common natural disasters, others insist that the ODA rules must keep poverty reduction as a central tenet.

“I think it’s about the detail,” Stephen Twigg, chair of the U.K. Parliament’s International Development Committee, told Devex following the evidence session. “I think you need to look at what the criteria would be, because clearly when you look at what happened, a lot of very poor people were affected, and I can understand how a lot of people in this country instinctively thought it doesn’t seem right that doesn’t count as aid. So I think I can understand why it’s being looked at, but the important thing is in addressing that, we don’t then open into a difficult situation,” he said.

“I think from my point of view the key test is, is the key focus still poverty reduction?” he said.

The U.K. government is responsible for maintaining the security of its overseas territories. To date, it has spent 57 million British pounds in humanitarian aid and recovery after Hurricane Irma devastated the island nations of Barbados, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands.

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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    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.