Faces Change At DfID, But Does Aid To Africa Really Matter Any More?

Monday, 24 September 2012
Richard Dowden


As the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals approaches what is happening to the UK Government’s aid ministry and its impact on Africa?

An overseas aid ministry is an anomaly. How does a government account for taxpayers’ money spent on non voters, non citizens? The mandate is a vague wish among voters that “something must be done” when pictures of hunger and starvation are shown on television. British people are consistently among the most generous in the world when famine or disaster strikes in some distant land. But it is one thing to click off £10 for a starving African child shown on the Nine O’Clock News, quite another to spend £7 Billion – soon to be £11 Billion – to ensure that those pictures are never repeated.

The two extremes of the aid dilemma were starkly contrasted in the 1990s. At the beginning of the decade, the Conservative Government, keen to show “value for money” for the taxpayer, used aid to build a dubious dam in Malaysia in order to secure an arms deal with the Malaysian government and contracts for a British construction company. Lynda Chalker, whose Overseas Development Administration came under Foreign Office control, always had to justify aid in terms of benefit to Britain. In reaction, the Labour government later that decade declared development – and therefore aid – a human right, vastly increased the amount, committed 0.7 percent of our GDP to aid and created the Department for International Development, an independent ministry. I do not remember Clare Short, the Labour Minister for aid, ever mentioning British interests. She even refused to label anything given as British aid.

When the Conservatives took office in 2010, they reaffirmed the 0.7 percent commitment although the economic crash and subsequent cuts in public expenditure has made it politically difficult to maintain that commitment. Andrew Mitchell, the recently departed aid minister, spoke in terms of “value for money”. It sounded sensible at first but led to the false notion that the problems can be fixed quickly – real progress to show the voters before the next election. Some of the deepest developments take a generation to flower. For example, while declaring a regional approach to aid essential, DfID closed its offices in Burundi, an integral but highly unstable part of East Africa. This was very short-sighted. The government also spent money in interesting ways, for example funding the Metropolitan Police to pursue corruption money and funds stolen from governments in countries supported by UK aid – a very good use of aid. It also funded the Pope’s visit to Britain. Incomprehensible.

Personally – and I have interviewed every aid minister going back to Judith Hart in the 1970s – I divide them into those who cared and those who were seeking a politically more important job. Whatever their ideology, successes or mistakes, Chalker, Short and Mitchell cared.

How does it look from Africa? Two things matter for African presidents and ministers. They like to establish personal relationships and trust in face to face talks with the same people over a long period. Secondly they like to deal with people who know something about their country’s history. They do not like ministers who talk down to them (as Mitchell did) or those who just read a brief on the plane as they fly in (as Douglas Alexander did).

The recent reshuffle ignores these aspects and casts doubt over how much this government cares about development and its relations with Africa. The new minister, Justine Greening, seems to have been moved from Transport because she was opposed to a third runway at Heathrow when Prime Minister Cameron may have changed his mind about this.

Greening is an accountant by profession with little experience of Africa or other developing parts of the world covered by DfID. She talks of a line by line investigation to ensure value for money which sounds good, but is actually nonsense. How can someone with no experience of development, with an annual accounts mentality, judge the value of long term development projects? At least Greening seems to see international development as much about trade and other issues than just aid.

She may also come under pressure to cut back on consultants, or at least find some competent ones in-country. The Daily Mail, not known as a supporter of aid, ran an excellent story last week about UK or offshore based DfID consultants taking home six figure salaries and massive bonuses. This should encourage DfID to look for more African consultants – either in Africa or here among the diaspora.

The story that caught the headlines was that when Greening was offered – or perhaps ‘sent to’ – DfID, she is reported to have said something along the lines of “I did not bloody well come into politics to distribute money to people in poor countries”. Government spokesman have refused to deny this. If true, that makes the two top people at DfID reluctant ministers. Alan Duncan, the number two, said in 2010 that he would have had another ministry if he hadn’t been caught on camera making comments about MPs expenses. Officials keep stressing the commitment of the new ministers to 0.7 percent but that, ironically, is now Mitchells’s baby as Chief Whip, holding the line against the Conservatives’ nasty party tendency.

The best DfID minister was the number three, Stephen O’Brien, who was born and lived in East Africa and instinctively respected the continent and its people. He knew how to conduct conversations and negotiations there. In keeping with DfID’s new ideology, he had a business background. No reason for his dismissal has been given so I assume he was moved to create a vacancy for someone else – Lynne Featherstone, a Liberal Democrat, in order to fulfil that quota and make the government look more gender balanced.

Henry Bellingham has also been dropped as Africa Minister at the Foreign Office. I have to admit when I first met him I was not impressed. He seemed narrowly focussed on Africa as a business destination for Britain with little interest in or understanding of the complexities of African politics and Britain’s overall approach. You only have to read Chris Mullin’s diaries to understand what a frustrating and thankless task being Africa Minister can be – though Mullin enjoyed it and always saw the funny side. Bellingham became more and more impressive in his grasp of the issues, his quiet, firm style and good manners. He has been replaced by Mark Simmonds who was very active on Africa as an opposition spokesman on international development, but is actually better know for his work on Latin America. Knowing how much travelling is involved with Africa political relations it is worrying that he lists spending time with his family as his number one priority.

People develop and change. So although the indications are not propitious for a dynamic team working creatively to help get Africa nearer to the MDG targets in the next three years, I will not write off any of these appointments. But they look more like internal political expediency than what Africa and the rest of the developing world needs right now. Meanwhile, Africa’s exciting new growth rates, only indirectly or remotely affected by aid, are transforming poor countries faster than almost all the experts predicted.