Congratulations on your elevation to the Cabinet. I was delighted to see your appointment to the post of international development secretary given your unstinting efforts to stand up for British interests as an energetic Brexiteer. I must confess to slight bias, however, given that you retweeted an article of mine from 2013 calling for an end to ring fencing of the foreign aid budget. This gives me renewed hope that we might finally see reform of this money pit.
It was kind of you to say my article was ‘interesting’ on ‘the value (or otherwise) of the overseas aid budget.’ As I argued, it defies all logic to commit Britain to an arbitrary spending target that means we must dole out 0.7 per cent of national income. ‘In what other areas of government do we start not by asking what we want to achieve, but how much of our national income we want to dispense?’ I asked. That was true then and it is even truer today.
Despite the imposition of austerity to restore public finances after Labour’s time in office, David Cameron’s coalition government hiked spending on foreign aid. In 2013, the year I wrote that article you praised, the budget rose by almost one-third to £11.4bn despite falling numbers of police and substantial cuts to local authority budgets at home. It was also the year that Britain – unlike most wealthy competitors such as the United States, France, China or Japan – joined a tiny club of countries hitting that highly questionable United Nations target.
Since then, aid spending has risen to £14.6bn last year, and the arbitrary target has been enshrined into law by Westminster. This budget doubled in a decade under three Tory prime ministers, ensuring Britain spends more than any other country except for the United States. Priti Patel, one of your many predecessors, wrote at one point that waste of cash on ‘vanity projects in far-flung lands’ and ‘bonkers’ procurement kept her awake at night – which you shared also on social media.
The tragedy of Britain’s approach to aid is that it not only betrays the interests of British taxpayers but fails the world’s most vulnerable people. Why are we giving aid to China, a country with a bigger economy than our own? Why do we spend millions in India, which not only has an ambitious space programme but its own aid agency? Why do we pump money into a place such as Rwanda when it then spends tens of millions of pounds sponsoring Arsenal, its autocratic president’s favourite Premier League football team? Why do we aid officials from North Korea, the world’s most awful state? Meanwhile even the World Bank has had to admit that its substantial handouts seem to fuel corruption, especially in more aid-dependent economies with their weak political structures.
You are the fourth person to hold this seat around the cabinet table within a single year. This indicates that foreign aid is not really seen as the most pressing concern for our party. But I have seen sensible aid sceptics accept this post before, only to soon start chirping the chorus conducted by the DfID mandarins. However, the combination of Brexit and a parliamentary majority of 80 under Boris Johnson presents the opportunity to be bold in reassessing our priorities, both domestic and international. The PM has shown he is aware of the problems, observing last year that ‘we can’t keep spending huge sums of British taxpayers’ money as though we were some independent Scandinavian NGO’
There are other signs of progress. I was pleased to see the reshuffle involved the appointment of a joint ministerial team for your new department and the foreign office. There have been hints and whispers this paves the way for a full merger. Fingers crossed these rumours turn out to be true. DfID officials with big budgets and an often-distasteful reluctance to stand up for democratic values have become far more powerful than our diplomats in some developing nations, while the department stands aloof from the rest of Whitehall. It is time to bring development under the control of the Foreign Secretary, as part of an overall vision of the UK’s interests and priorities. This would surely not include assisting cruel regimes, spending money in wasteful style and pursuing policies that are anachronistic and damaging.
So I wish you well in your new job, but I must be honest and say I hope your tenure doesn’t last too long. Just long enough to oversee the absorption of the DfID back into the Foreign Office at which point we can ditch the crazy target and focus on the real needs of poor and vulnerable people. This would be a significant political achievement – and one sure to bring you the reward of another job that involves thinking about what we want to achieve, not just how much we want to spend.