The Tories and DFID

As everyone waits to see what Obama plans to do about reforming foreign assistance in the US, back here in Britain change is in the air too: the Conservatives are coming clean about what they really think about DFID, the Department for International Development.

For a while now, there have been whispers that the Tories don’t really buy into the idea of an independent DFID – and that perhaps (gasp!) they might be considering merging it back into the Foreign Office, where it resided until 1997. Well, following last week’s Independent interview with Conservative aid spokesman Andrew Mitchell, we can put that notion to rest: “We are very committed to DFID continuing as an independent department of state”, says he.

So, a ringing endorsement of DFID, then?  Er, not quite.  Here’s the full context:

The shadow International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, said DFID had begun to encroach on the work of other departments and to come “perilously close” to setting its own foreign policy, a role he said should be reserved for the Foreign Office. He said the Foreign Office will be given much greater influence over the use of overseas aid should the Tories win the next election …

“There are times when DFID comes perilously close to pursuing its own foreign policy and that is not right,” Mr Mitchell said. “Foreign policy is decided by the government and the Cabinet, led by the Foreign Office, and DFID should not be an alternative to this. We are very committed to DFID continuing as an independent department of state. But we would make it more of a specialised development department and a little less like an aid agency,” he said.

That left me wondering just which specific instances Mitchell was thinking of in arguing that DFID was coming close to having its own foreign policy.  Iraq? Afghanistan? Climate change? (Thinking that Paul Wolfowitz might not be such a great idea for President of the World Bank?) Sadly, we don’t know.  Earlier today I called his office to ask him to elaborate, but he declined to say more.

This is a shame, on two counts. First, because it’s a cop out.  For the Opposition front bench spokesman on international development to argue that the Department he shadows has come ‘close to pursuing its own foreign policy’ is a serious claim – and one which he ought to be prepared to substantiate.  To fail to do so leaves him open to accusations of offering soundbites rather than reasoned argument.

More fundamentally, though, it’s a shame that Andrew Mitchell wouldn’t elaborate because this debate needs to be had.  There are big questions about DFID’s relationship with the Foreign Office, and how coherent UK foreign policy as a whole is now, or could be in the future.  And to be fair, most people in the aid sector trust Andrew Mitchell and think he’s one of the good guys (indeed, one suggestion I heard today was that Mitchell’s interview was part of a settlement thrashed out between him and Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague – whereby having DFID ‘brought to heel’ was the price Mitchell had to pay for the Conservatives committing to keep DFID independent, with its budget intact).

So what to make of the substance of Mitchell’s argument?  Well, NGOs – and many within DFID – will have alarm bells ringing in their ears at the notion that “the Foreign Office will be given much greater influence over the use of overseas aid ” under a Conservative government.

After all, last time that was the case it didn’t work out so well: just look at the Pergau Dam, a hydroelectric project in Malaysia that hoovered up £230 million of British aid, with negligible impact on poverty (“an abuse of the aid system” is how DFID’s former Perm Sec Tim Lankester described it), but a fat pay-off for the British firms involved in construction.  It was precisely to prevent such abuses from recurring in future that Labour enacted the International Development Act, which enshrines in law that DFID’s budget is only to be used for purposes of poverty reduction.

Today, though, various commentators – including, now, Andrew Mitchell – wonder whether the pendulum has swung too far.  Fine, aid should be about poverty reduction – but couldn’t DFID be a little more flexible in how this is interpreted?

And in fact, there’s often something to these arguments. It’s only recently, for example, that the UK development community has really accepted that conflict prevention is a core part of poverty reduction – pretty extraordinary, when you reflect on the impact that conflict has on prospects for achieving the MDGs in places like Congo, Sierra Leone or Sudan. On the other hand, there’s also a big risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  Is the aid budget really there to repatriate failed asylum seekers to refugee camps in developing countries, for instance? Someone once thought so…

But in a larger sense, to zone out immediately on the implications of Mitchell’s comments for the aid budget is perhaps also to miss the point. In most developing countries, it’s not at all clear that the principal obstacle to development is the lack of aid cash, however much Bono and Jeff Sachs might want us to think so (though there are exceptions). More fundamentally, development prospects depend on:

1) the quality of the country’s institutions, its governance, its political process; and

2) all the ways in which actions taken elsewhere in the world affect prospects for development in the country – e.g. emitting carbon, selling arms, providing tax havens, imposing one-size-fits-all aid conditionality, diverting food to biofuels, subsidising EU and US agriculture, and so on.

And this is where I think Andrew Mitchell’s argument is a missed opportunity. Fine, if you think DFID is just a tube through which to funnel money into developing countries then by all means clip its wings, put it back in its box, and leave the politics to the big boys over at King Charles Street. But if, on the other hand, you think that delivering development involves being politically sophisticated – both in partner countries and on the global stage – then a strong, independent-minded DFID, with views of its own about foreign policy, is an absolute sine qua non.

To be sure, the fact remains that DFID’s relationship with the FCO is probably overdue for a review.  But to begin that process from the premise that DFID needs to be brought to heel is not the right starting point. If we’re honest, after all, FCO is just as capable of dysfunctionality as is DFID.  And if DFID is sometimes a bit too cocksure about its mission in the world, FCO is sometimes pretty unsure of what its role is in a world of transboundary issues in which every government department has its little bit of foreign policy.

The real problem is not, as Mitchell argues, that DFID has begun to ‘encroach’ on other areas of foreign policy; it’s that everyone is encroaching on everyone.  The old organisational silos simply don’t match the reality of a world in which the borders between areas of policy are as porous as those between countries.  Even if DFID were abolished tomorrow, the FCO still wouldn’t be in charge of foreign policy – because European integration and globalisation have between them scattered foreign policy from one end of Whitehall to the other.

By extension, where I do agree with Andrew Mitchell is where his interview ends up – with the need to ask what a coherent, integrated approach to all foreign policy issues would look like (something David and I have written about before – here’s the note on same that we did just before Gordon Brown became PM).  This is a much bigger issue than just DFID’s relationship with the FCO (and actually, I think that most people in DFID would welcome the chance to have this big picture discussion – if only the old guard at FCO could restrain themselves from rattling DFID’s cage and bringing all the old fears back to the surface).

Still, perhaps we’ll get there in the end.  As chance would have it, discussions of what a more integrated foreign policy strategy might look like are just getting underway as the Government embarks on the second iteration of its National Security Strategy, due for publication some time this summer.  As I write, I’m at a Wilton Park conference organised by several UK government departments, which will be feeding in indirectly to that review.  While naturally respecting Wilton Park’s firm rules about discussions being off the record, I don’t think I’m giving away any state secrets if I report that the DFID and FCO officials who are here, at least, seem to be able to work together rather well. Finding the right context for discussions of shared futures is half the battle, it seems.