A “silent withdrawal from ringfencing the aid budget”? Hmm.

Lots of agitation on the internets this weekend with news of cancellation of various DFID funding priorities. It all seems to stem from this leaked submission from DFID’s Policy Director, Nick Dyer, on the subject of “which previous public commitments DFID should track and honour”.

 The new government took office with over a hundred such commitments on the books, the submission notes – before recommending keeping just 19 of them (including, thankfully, the £1 billion for food and agriculture and the £1.5 billion for fast start climate finance). Here’s the list of which commitments the submission proposes dropping.

Cue predictable howls of outrage from, well, everyone you’d expect (see this post on Left Foot Forward, and this Observer piece from over the weekend), plus an accusation from Caroline Crampton in the Statesman that “a silent withdrawal from the ringfencing policy seems to be underway”.

Well, hmmm… I’m not so sure. I have questions of my own about where Andrew Mitchell is taking DFID – I really hope the ultra-low profile he’s been keeping on big global policy issues like climate change is a reflection of a tactical decision to lie low until after the Spending Review, rather than a ‘new normal’; I’m seriously worried about what’ll happen to DFID’s headcount if its admin (rather than programme) budget is deemed eligible for the 25-40% cuts other departments are facing, given that DFID’s lost 1 in 6 staff since 2005 as it is; and of course I disagree with some of the items included on the proposed cancellation list (Gareth Thomas is right, for example, that cancelling funding to CERF would be a seriously bad idea, and would undermine the UK’s track record of leadership in pushing for a more coherent and effective UN humanitarian assistance system).

But overall, the howls look a bit overdone to me. For one thing, reviewing how DFID spends its budget is not the same as undoing the ringfencing over the size of that budget (as Caroline Crampton must realise). There’s no sign of the coalition backing away from its commitment on 0.7, and I honestly can’t see them doing it after all the political capital they’ve committed on the issue (for sure, there are questions about what else may be counted as aid, but that’s not what this  submission is about).

More fundamentally, it’s legitimate to question some of these funding commitments. How exactly are we honouring the principle that developing countries get to decide how to spend the aid the UK gives them, if ministers keep announcing one sectoral fund after another? And what about the fact that a good few of the items on the proposed list of cancellations were the result not of careful policymaking, but of Gordon Brown phoning up DFID and demanding an announceable (usually less than 24 hours before a speech)?

Me, I think the jury’s still out on Andrew Mitchell. The themes he’s developed so far – transparency, outputs and outcomes, accountability – are all OK as far as they go, if a bit boring. I don’t see the outlines of his ‘grand strategy’ on development yet, but hopefully we’ll hear more about that in the autumn. In the meantime, reviewing where DFID’s money goes and which of the ancien regime‘s commitments he’ll retain seems not unreasonable to me.

Conservatives lead DFID for first time (updated)

Andrew Mitchell becomes the first Conservative Secretary of State at the UK’s Department for International Development. DFID was formed in 1997, as one of the first acts of the Blair government.

So far, Mitchell sounds quite a bit like DFID’s first head,  Clare Short, promising to focus on poverty eradication:

We must make 2010 the year when we get the Millennium Development Goals back on-track and make real progress towards what we all want to see: a world free from poverty. I look forward to getting to work to help make that happen.

Update: Owen Barder comments:

The Conservatives have made no secret of their desire to ensure that Britain’s world-class development work is more closely integrated with the UK’s other international work led by the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence. The aim is to have a more joined up foreign policy, which may result in DFID being more engaged in post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction in future.

I’m personally in favour of a more joined up foreign policy, but this integration of development policy with other UK objectives must not be a one-way street: it must also be that other government policies are designed to support the UK’s objectives for development and poverty reduction. The commitment in Andrew Mitchell’s statement to “harness the full range of British government policies” is therefore especially welcome.

As someone who cares passionately about the need for greater transparency of aid, I also welcome Andrew Mitchell’s emphasis on this. This bodes well for continued and strengthened UK support for the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). A group of 18 donors so far, who together give half of global aid, are working through IATI towards a common international standard for publication of detailed and timely information about aid: this offers the possibility of a step change in the accessibility of global aid information, which will help to make more accountable and effective.

Reaction and analysis from the Guardian.