What does former DfID chief Andrew Mitchell think of the UK's aid strategy?

Former U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell. Photo by: Foreign & Commonwealth Office / CC BY

When the former secretary of state responsible for the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development looks at the aid agency today, he sees a lot of his influence still at work.

“I changed DfID pretty radically, and those changes continue to dominate the DfID agenda,” Andrew Mitchell told Devex during an interview in his office at the Houses of Parliament.

Aspects of his legacy that he is most proud of, he said, include narrowing DfID’s focus on securing results, promoting prosperity and tackling conflict.

Mitchell expressed pride that during his time as head of DfID, the U.K. became the first Group of Eight country to commit to spending 0.7 percent of gross national income on aid. Mitchell added he was also “very proud it was a Conservative-led government that did it.”

But increasing the aid budget during governmentwide austerity, while setting the bar abroad for other donor countries, also put DfID squarely in the limelight at home. The perception by some of the U.K.’s mainstream media that DfID enjoys a plush, outsized budget indeed originates in large part with Mitchell’s tenure.

Looking back, Mitchell views it differently. He said he believes he made DfID “more of a department of state for development in the developing world, and less of a well-upholstered NGO moored off the coast of Whitehall.”

Mitchell added he also had a hand in the U.K.’s leadership on the high-level U.N. panel to form the SDGs. Prime Minister David Cameron made this decision, Mitchell said, at his urging.

“I persuaded the PM to be co-chair of the high-level panel, as a symbol of Britain’s leadership in this area,” he said.

But orchestrating one of the government’s only ring-fenced budgets had its pitfalls, and Mitchell didn’t emerge unscathed. Shortly after he was promoted to chief whip, Mitchell was involved in an altercation with London police in which he allegedly made classist remarks — an incident which was later proven to be at least partially fabricated — and which placed Mitchell at the center of a long-running media assault ending with his resignation from his role as chief whip.

Mitchell called the experience a “very difficult time” that’s now “all in the past.” He added that he was especially grateful for the support of “so many members and friends and colleagues from within the international development community.”

While no longer directly involved in DfID policy, Mitchell claimed he “never left the sector,” and continues to advocate for aid and aid workers in his role as an MP.

And he’s kept tabs on recent developments, like the U.K.’s new aid strategy, which aims to dedicate 50 percent of aid to fragile states. The new strategy also commits to increasing aid spent by non-DfID government departments to 28 percent by 2020, a near tripling of current aid spent outside of DfID. For the most part, Mitchell viewed the shifts positively, and even recognized some of his own policy decisions in the document.

“What we did was to — mainly through the mechanism of the National Security Council — we wound together more closely defense, development and diplomacy,” he said. “That must be the right thing to do and I think has been extremely successful.”

In spite of concerns from the development community that a cross-government approach could make contracting and procurement procedures more difficult for DfID’s partners, Mitchell insisted spending through other departments including the National Security Council, the Ministry of Defense, the Foreign Office and the Home Office is the right thing to do.

“If it’s eligible we should be spending it in that way,” he said. “I certainly made sure that wherever we could fund the Home Office or defense or the Foreign Office through [official development assistance] money, we always did our best to do that.”

Mitchell showed less enthusiasm for other aspects of the new strategy — like the commitment to end all general budget support to recipient countries. This type of unearmarked aid goes directly to governments, and is often used for improving recipient government infrastructure, human resources and tackling corruption.

Mitchell acknowledged that general budget support poses a political risk for donors — it’s more difficult to stay accountable for unearmarked aid — but pointed out that when used in the right context, general budget support is an important tool.

“There’s a role for general budget support,” he said. “In the right place, it is the best way of promoting development.”

Finally, more broadly, Mitchell expressed concern over the disconnect between the U.K.’s foreign policy and its aid strategy in war-torn Yemen.

“Britain’s humanitarian and foreign policy are pursuing different ends,” Mitchell said in another recent interview. “The Yemenis are being pulverized by the Saudis while we try to get aid in through ports which are being blockaded and while British ordnance is being dropped there.”

Delivering aid to conflict-stricken countries, he said, is “a critical part of international development because it … makes life easier for the poorest people in the world who are engulfed in conflict.”

“Remember,” he added, “conflict is development in reverse.”

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.

About the author

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former 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.