An aid to better spending

Published by The Times (12th December, 2019)

Even Boris Johnson’s critics would agree that on the subject of international aid he has been clear and consistent. The prime minister rightly argues that Britain’s foolish adoption of the discredited United Nations aid spending target leads to the frittering away of funds ‘as though we were some independent Scandinavian NGO’.

His stated solution is simple: to fold the Department for International Development (Dfid) back into the Foreign Office in an effort to use the ballooning aid budget more wisely. This might be followed by revoking the legal commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on overseas aid. Both moves make good sense. When Tony Blair spun Dfid out of the Foreign Office in 1997 Britain’s £2.1 billion spending on aid was about twice the Foreign Office budget. Now aid spending has swollen to £14.6 billion, accounting for almost three times the share of national income, while the Foreign Office budget is the same as more than two decades ago.

So civil servants doling out cash are far more influential than our diplomats in much of the developing world. This distorts relationships on the ground and British policy at a time of rising scepticism over the neocolonial aid system and its astonishing wastefulness. Local politicians pay far more heed to those funding their pet projects, who in return often brush aside inconvenient issues such as democracy, free expression and theft.

Any such merger would follow similar moves by Denmark, Australia and Canada. It might rein in some of the excesses of Dfid, which views itself as superior to the rest of Whitehall, pays the highest average salaries and has become far too close to charities and consultancy firms. Some reacted with predictable fury. They argue that Dfid makes Britain a ‘development superpower’, yet this is only because it sprays so much money around the world. ‘Remember when the whole development community had to kiss up to Priti Patel because Dfid pays our bills,’ said one senior figure at a Washington think tank recently.

Yet at the root of all the problems is that wretched aid target, which encourages cash to be shovelled out the door regardless of repeated evidence of failure. The Foreign Office, which spent £633 million of the official aid budget last year, has a dire record too. Johnson also wants to redefine aid and refocus it as a tool of foreign policy, brushing aside even the pretence of helping the poor. These would be regressive steps. Far better to follow the lead of the Netherlands and simply ditch a daft target that fuels waste, fosters corruption and funds despotism.

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