Patel takes on foreign aid fat cats

Published by The i paper (19th December, 2016)

It is fair to assume few cheers were heard in the Department for International Development (Dfid) corridors when officials learned Priti Patel was coming to take charge. It was bad enough the Essex MP was a Brexit campaigner who made her name with such a right-wing stance on crime, immigration and welfare that she was dubbed ‘the female Norman Tebbit’. Worse, she was a critic of foreign aid who had even called for abolition of the ministry.

The appointment of this uncompromising woman to a department currently charged with chucking £12bn around the planet was one of the more fascinating of Theresa May’s appointments. It seemed part of the Prime Minister’s canny plan to dump Brexiteers in cabinet jobs that might destroy their ambitions. Not least since Patel was parachuted into a department that acts like an enthusiastic offshoot of the charity sector rather than a responsible arm of government.

Yet six months later, and with profound irony, there is a possibility this sceptical politician might serve as saviour of Dfid. Let me explain. Her instincts on taking office were twofold: first, that aid dispensed around the world must better serve British interests. And second, that the best way to eliminate abuse and waste is by opening up competition for contracts to run multimillion-pound projects, along with more transparency over costs.

Now she has been handed the tools to challenge the system by a series of my investigations with the Mail on Sunday. I first began examining aid seven years ago, alarmed by how British cash was assisting repressive regimes in countries such as Ethiopia and Rwanda. I had heard too often criticism in poorer nations that the biggest beneficiaries were corrupt local politicians, self-centred charities and, above all, wealthy Westerners. And I had seen how constant portrayal of Africa as a place only of disease, hunger, poverty and war hurt both its image and development.

We have created a flawed system, designed to make ourselves feel good but often causing damage in poorer places. The aid boom fuels conflict, feeds corruption and undermines democracy by fostering welfare dependency; local rulers respond to our dictates rather than demands of their own people. There is also gross hypocrisy in Western politicians using taxpayers’ money to cloak themselves in compassion while backing protectionist food policies, resisting refugees fleeing for their lives and clamping down hard on migration.

The more I looked, the more I learned what a monster had been created. The lucrative aid world, with budgets soaring to hit an absurd, random and outmoded target, had become deeply corrupt. Not just in the way money goes missing with such weary regularity but in the insidious way sticky fingers sought to divert cash flooding from Whitehall coffers. Bear in mind budgets are due to double to £16bn over the course of this decade, in defiance of warnings from experts and economists.

So Dfid staff became the best-paid civil servants in Whitehall. Big charities ramped up their top pay, echoing arguments of bankers while pleading for cash to help the needy. Private firms muscled in, creaming off cash intended for the planet’s poorest people. Some dodged UK tax while milking millions from taxpayers. And the media jumped into bed with these poverty barons, letting them dictate their agenda while ignoring need to challenge increasingly powerful and interlinked vested interests.

Now we see the inevitable legacy when spending takes priority over sanity, let alone need. Vanity projects such as the £285m airport too windy for commercial flights, ceaseless conferences, huge sums despatched on dire schemes. I saw how £400m was spent on the Caribbean island of Montserrat in two decades – yet 4,900 residents did not have a proper port and their hospital remained stuck in a former school. A brave whistleblower who exposed how so much money was blown on little more than a few beach bars was hung out to dry rather than praised.

Earlier this month another whistleblower passed me documents showing how Adam Smith International, Dfid’s biggest specialist-aid contractor, handling projects worth close to half-a-million pounds, had engaged in dirty tricks. One manager, a former Dfid official, obtained confidential documents that he circulated around the firm to gain advantage on bids. It also ran a clandestine campaign to convince MPs it was spending aid wisely, involving use of faked statements.

The revelations have caused a storm in an aid industry feasting for so long on the body politic. Two inquiries were instantly launched. Ministers ‘paused’ new projects with private firms. Now Patel has sent them a fierce letter warning of reforms that will include tighter scrutiny of ethics, expenses, fees and tax status. This is far from Dfid’s first attempt to constrain the fatcats. But political imperative to tackle such issues will only grow as aid budgets swell, otherwise aid policies will become even more of a running political sore.

Patel’s instincts are different to my own, let alone to those dominant in this sector, yet her aides insist we all share a similar desire to help people fleeing war, trapped in poverty or fighting prejudice. My hunch is her efforts to challenge the self-serving forces that corrode the aid world are doomed unless the Government abandons the crazy concept of committing to a daft aid target. Yet at least we hear fighting talk of reform. It makes a change from the platitudes and deluge of dodgy statistics that usually spew from Dfid alongside those rivers of gold washing around the globe.

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