Wasteful and misguided: what the new aid minister really thinks about the £14bn we send abroad each year

Published by The Mail on Sunday (12th May, 2019)

The new International Development Secretary has admitted that ‘not a great deal has been achieved’ with foreign aid, The Mail on Sunday can reveal – despite rich countries such as Britain spending ‘an enormous amount of money’ in poor places over the past half-century.

Rory Stewart has condemned as ‘mistaken’ the ‘liberal imperialist idea’ of using development cash to impose stability in conflict-torn states – even though the Government is spending half of its ballooning £14billion aid budget on fragile nations.

The Penrith MP, a diplomat and charity chief before entering Parliament, also dismissed the idea that British cash can create millions of jobs in poor countries, a cornerstone of Government policy since the Tories took office in 2010 and ramped up aid budgets.

‘We don’t know how to do it,’ he argued. ‘We can’t, I’m afraid, create jobs for those people.’

Stewart, who has said he will stand for the Tory Party leadership when Theresa May steps down, delivered his scathing concerns on aid in a lecture at Yale University last year, three months after moving from a more junior ministerial post at the Department for International Development (Dfid).

In a devastating critique of the core ideas behind Britain’s controversial global aid programme, he highlighted instances of the astonishing waste of taxpayers’ money in Africa – including £4.5 billion frittered away on failure in Malawi over half a century.

He has also admitted it is ‘very curious’ that Britain, alone among the world’s richest nations, hits the global aid target of giving away 0.7 per cent of national income – a policy The Mail on Sunday has campaigned against – adding that he was ‘deliberately avoiding’ the question of whether this should really be enshrined in law.

Stewart joined the Cabinet at the start of this month when Penny Mordaunt was moved from Dfid to be Defence Secretary following the dismissal of Gavin Williamson. Since then, Stewart has stressed support for the aid target and the department’s work.

Yet in his Yale University talk, discussing his experiences on the ground and then as Africa Minister at both Dfid and the Foreign Office, he savaged the development sector and its blundering arrogance, accusing it of viewing recipients as ‘ignorant, unskilled and idle’.

His lecture expanded on earlier criticisms made in 2011 to an all-party House of Lords inquiry into aid, which concluded the spending target was flawed since it prioritised spending over results, and should be dropped. Instead, the measure was voted into law four years later.

Stewart told his audience last year about visiting a rural health clinic in Africa given £27 million in aid where he found ‘human excrement on the floor, there’s no medicines on the shelves, there are no patient records. There’s a fan but there’s no electricity to power it and, of course, there are no patients insane enough to go anywhere near that clinic.’

He also pointed to Zambia, ‘where we have just wasted a prodigious £55 million on trying to reform agricultural subsidies – and we’ve been trying to do this for over 20 years.’ This was, he said, ‘a classic international development situation’.

Stewart admitted politicians misled voters to justify spending so much money on aid. ‘We tend to over-emphasise the threats that could be posed,’ he said. ‘Often the things we say are existential threats to global security may not be existential threats to global security.’

Three days after Stewart’s lecture, Penny Mordaunt claimed in a speech that aid was ‘a shield’ against economic migration, pandemic disease, organised crime, poverty and terrorism.

Yet critics argue aid can feed crime and terrorism: Professor Angus Deaton, the British Nobel Prize-winning economist, is just one of the experts who argue that misjudged spending by foreign donors can undermine good governance by assisting corrupt and incompetent regimes.

Stewart has, unusually for someone in his job, worked in such conflict zones. He is co-author of a well-received book called Can Intervention Work? based on his experiences as a diplomat in the Balkans and Iraq, and then running a charity in Afghanistan for three years.

His lecture at Yale last April was called Failed States – And How Not To Fix Them. It began by describing how, as a Dfid Minister, he was asked daily to sign off major projects since his job involved spending $6.5 billion (£5 billion) a year.

‘So every day on my desk: would you like to spend $220 million on an education programme in Ethiopia, would you like to spend $42 million on training political parties in Bangladesh, would you like to spend $15 million on a healthcare project in Upper Tanzania?’

Then he asked his audience why such aid had failed to solve the problems in poor places ‘despite spending many, many billions of dollars over the past 40, 50 years?’

He argued the key problem was that generic solutions from outsiders failed to take account of local realities, compounded by lack of language skills and – in many fragile states – security fears keeping foreigners behind walls.

Stewart, who famously walked across Afghanistan in the winter of 2002, said only about 100 foreigners out of almost 220,000 on the ground at one point in that country could speak an Afghan language fluently.

‘The scale of this problem is inconceivable,’ he said. ‘We are experts on gender in the abstract. We are experts on education in the abstract, on economics in the abstract. What we are not experts on is gender in Afghanistan, the economics of Afghanistan, because we don’t know anything about Afghanistan.

‘The fundamental problem is that in many, many, many cases we are dedicating ourselves to impossible projects – and projects which we cannot acknowledge as impossible.’

Stewart highlighted the difficulties of ‘trying to turn around’ a country such as Somalia, which is getting £158 million from his new department this year, when ‘civil war is going on, there’s no electricity on the ground and where you don’t begin to understand the local structures’.

He also raised the problems in such places of engaging with women, a priority for Dfid in recent years as poverty declines around the planet, by highlighting an incident during his service in Iraq when setting up a provincial council.

‘All the women sat at one end of the room in total silence with their headscarves on, didn’t contribute to the political conversation at all – and then when one of them spoke up, she was dragged out of her car and executed the next day.’

Stewart concluded that foreign intervention could help with banking, communications and ‘some aspects’ of healthcare, while saying he supported humanitarian relief, but ‘root problems of rule of law, governance, corruption’ would be solved by local people.

‘I don’t think you can do this stuff, generally,’ he said, despite the Government taking billions from taxpayers to tackle such concerns in developing nations and conflict zones. ‘People within these countries can themselves sort out those problems.’

It is also understood Stewart approved a blog published about a similar lecture he gave to the London School of Economics that described him as ‘sceptical (to say the least) about the efficiency of international aid in fragile/conflict states’.

In his evidence to the Lords inquiry, Stewart said the reason for failure to make progress in Afghanistan on governance and civil society objectives was not due to lack of resources. ‘The problem was that we are not capable of doing these things,’ he said.

‘The liberal imperialist idea – the fashion of creating governance and stability in a post-conflict zone through the application of development aid – is mistaken.’

He said Dfid should differentiate between ‘what it believes is necessary… and what is possible’.

Stewart said yesterday he is ‘deeply proud’ to have been appointed to his new post after spending much of his life working in development, adding: ‘Dfid can be a real force for good in the world.’

But he added: ‘Too often there is a gap between rhetoric and reality. The main drivers of this are abstract jargon, isolation of foreign lives – particularly in war zones – and unrealistic statements about what can be achieved.

‘The solution is making sure we have more genuine experts on the ground. This is a traditional British strength and one we can build on. We need to do less than we pretend, then we can do more than we fear.’

Finally, Dfid has a boss who has seen the flaws of the aid industry in the field. So can Stewart intervene and impose sense at last in our most profligate department?

We gave £4.5bn to Malawi… and now it’s even poorer 

Rory Stewart pointed to Malawi, the sixth-poorest country in the world, as an example of the failure of our foreign aid policy. ‘The British Government has spent something in the region of £4.5 billion over the past 50 years and Malawi is, if anything, poorer than it was when we started,’ he told Yale University.

This struggling Southern African nation has one of the highest population densities on the planet and was for years a darling of the aid industry, with aid accounting for almost half of its budget. Even the Scottish government has chipped in £11 million.

Yet it has been plagued by bad governance and corruption. Western donors froze aid six years ago after bureaucrats and politicians stole millions in a so-called ‘cashgate’ scandal, which looted one-third of the nation’s budget and led to 70 arrests. One man investigating the scandal was shot, while documents were stolen from a German official helping to probe the theft.

The International Monetary Fund said the fraud helped stymie the country’s development.

Last year Saulos Chilima, Malawi’s vice-president, accused the president, Peter Mutharika, of corruption. His claims included allegations of kickbacks over a £3 million police contract. The claims, which he outlined to me later in London, were denied.

Dfid spends about £65 million a year on Malawi’s 19 million people, claiming British aid has ‘a demonstrable impact and is highly cost-effective’.

Yet the department’s confidential 2016-2020 business plan for Malawi, leaked to The Mail on Sunday, admits the political climate ‘is not conducive to supporting sustained poverty reduction.

It adds that ‘corruption is widespread’ and accepts there is serious risk of instability, declining human rights, deteriorating government, ‘poor or no delivery of our programmes’, and ‘loss of Dfid funds due to fraudulent or corrupt activities’.

Despite this, officials pledged that Dfid would help deliver a ‘stable Malawi with more accountable institutions’ by next year, along with ‘increased job opportunities’.

In recent days there have been reports of attacks on albinos ahead of an election this month, with one man dismembered in front of his son. Albino body parts are sold for huge sums to politicians, who believe they boost their chances of winning.

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