Good riddance to the self-serving Department for International Narcissists

Published by The Daily Mail (June 17th, 2020)

One of Tony Blair’s first actions in government after winning the 1997 election was to weaken British diplomacy by spinning aid spending into a new department, accompanied by the usual guff about an ‘ethical foreign policy’ and ending global poverty.

This was a catastrophic error. It created a narcissistic department for international development that constantly demanded bigger budgets despite a dismal track record; a department filled with self-serving officials claiming to be saintly saviours of the world.

At the same time, the move neutered British diplomats in poorer parts of the planet, since local politicians became far more focused on free-spending Department for International Development (Dfid) officials with bulging pockets than any ambassadorial staff talking of democracy, human rights or trade.

Blair later partially confessed to this mistake in his biography. He admitted that, over his years in Downing Street, the initial Foreign Office objections ‘gained my sympathy’ while complaining that Dfid resembled a charity operating inside government.

Now, more than two decades later, this foolish move, which has significantly harmed British interests, is finally being rectified. Boris Johnson is delivering on his long-held view that we need a single voice abroad.

He warned MPs about the ‘inherent risk of our left and right hands working independently’ before revealing his move to re-unite the two departments. ‘We must now strengthen our position in an incredibly competitive world.’

Despite predictable protests from charity chiefs and fat-cat aid consultants fearful that their chunky salaries might now be curtailed, I have no doubt this decision to merge diplomats and aid donors into a single department should be applauded.

There may be eyebrows raised over the timing, given the whirlwind of pressures swirling around Johnson’s administration, but this is a sensible move.

Even before Brexit and the pandemic, the world had changed dramatically since Blair created Dfid in 1997, when — as Johnson pointed out yesterday — China’s economy was smaller than Italy’s.

Britain needs a clear global voice at a time when China is flexing its muscles, the West seems rudderless, nationalism is on the rise and younger generations in developing countries resent ‘white saviours’ bearing neo-colonial aid.

For all the inevitable outrage yesterday, this well-trailed merger follows similar moves by Denmark, Australia and Canada. New Zealand, hailed on the Left for its smart governance in the pandemic, also adopts such a unified stance.

If we are lucky, the move might rein in some excesses of Dfid, which sees itself as a cut above the rest of Whitehall.

Typically, it hands its own staff the highest average salaries in the civil service of £51,660 a year — more than £8,000 above the second highest-paying department — even as they pontificate about poverty relief in poor places.

As I have seen on three continents, Dfid has a dreadful record of blowing billions on naive and vainglorious projects.

Even its former boss Rory Stewart admitted — before taking the job — that ‘not a great deal has been achieved’.

He pointed to Malawi, one of the world’s poorest nations, as an example of failure. ‘The British Government has spent in the region of £4.5 billion over the past 50 years and Malawi is, if anything, poorer than it was when we started.’

When Blair created Dfid, Britain’s £2.1billion spending on aid was twice the budget for diplomacy. Today, it is more than four times higher. Despite a decade of austerity at home, the sum has surged to an astonishing £14.6 billion.

Yet, despite the Foreign Office takeover of Dfid, the Prime Minister still seems hooked on the idea Britain must hit the outdated United Nations target of spending 0.7 per cent of our national income on aid.

Johnson seems to be abandoning even the pretence that this vast spending is for poverty relief, insisting that it must serve British interests.

Yet the Foreign Office itself has its own dire record on spending. Look in the small print of its hand-outs to China, for example, and you will find items such as £17,060 being spent on three trips to Britain by the head of Beijing’s Supreme People’s Court.

Surely the world’s second biggest economy could afford to pay for this man’s flights. Or is Whitehall really this desperate to butter up the despotic communist regime in Beijing?

The Foreign Office also hands donations to India, which has both a thriving space programme and its own aid agency, while even using British taxpayers’ cash to train officials from North Korea, the world’s most repulsive regime.

Such absurdities show why the Prime Minister’s move should be just the first step in wider reform. For as Johnson said last year when discussing the need to fold Dfid into the Foreign Office, we must ‘stop spending huge sums of British taxpayers’ money as though we were some independent Scandinavian NGO’.

He warned that otherwise there is ‘inevitable waste as money is shoved out of the door in order to meet the 0.7 per cent target.’

Spot on. This is why aid spending came to be seen as ‘a giant cashpoint in the sky’, as Johnson termed it yesterday.

Johnson’s solution is to spend more in Europe and less in Africa. This continues a trend in spending over recent years away from the poorest countries — often riven with instability or run by appalling governments — towards middle-income nations.

But why not simply admit the experiment has failed, despite good intentions, and follow the Dutch lead by ditching the absurd aid target? The Netherlands found this sharpened their spending — and the target is ignored, after all, by most other richer nations.

Abandoning the target would end the contortions the Government goes through, trying to find ostensibly safe places and smart projects on which to spend our billions; it would no longer need to pretend that these deeply unpopular policies are achieving the results claimed by the aid industry’s self-serving cheerleaders.

Dfid recently spent £11million in a cluster of villages in Ghana on a project to test if aid makes a difference. The report concluded that ‘far from breaking the poverty trap, the project does not appear to have reduced poverty or hunger at all’.

With dreary inevitability, it also found nearly a third of the funds went on management and overheads, while admitting to a ‘large-scale’ fraud involving a key local partner.

We would do better to listen to Ghana’s president Nana Akufo-Addo who said, ‘we do not want to remain the beggars of the world’, insisting that his proud nation wants to ‘discard a mind-set of dependency and living on handouts’.

Our flood of aid cash has achieved little beyond propping up nasty regimes, frustrating democracy, fuelling conflict and fostering corruption.

A noble cause of compassion for the planet’s poor and dispossessed has been corroded — and not just abroad.

This corrosion has led to respected development bodies covering up vile sex abuse by employees to protect their brands. We also have the spectacle of former foreign secretary David Miliband pocketing almost a million dollars a year to run an aid charity while constantly asking for more donations.

This is not a time for faint-hearts amid Brexit, the pandemic and potential economic catastrophe.

If Britain really wants to demonstrate global leadership, we must strike out boldly on a new path rather than continue with the tired policies of the past.

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