Edward Parson: Keep the International Development Department. But scrap the 0.7 per cent aid target.

Edward Parson is a former Sevenoaks District Councillor and International Development Consultant, and contested North Durham at the 2019 General Election

At the height of election fever in December, there were mooted reports of a Whitehall shakeup – this included a possible merger of DFID with the Foreign Office, but more recent reporting suggests a reversal. This article will highlight why DFID should be kept intact as a separate Department, and why it is more important than ever to protect the aid budget.

Keeping DFID as a separate department

Whilst Britain spends £14 billion (2017) on overseas aid, 30 per cent of the aid budget is now spent outside of DFID, with departments like the Foreign Office taking an increasing portion under its control.

As a consultant, I supported aid work with both departments, and found that DFID managed its portfolio with far greater efficiency and scrutiny than the FCO. This view is supported by a National Audit Office report which found the lack of transparency in departments outside of DFID gave uncertainty that UK aid was being used effectively.

Official Development Assistance (ODA) spending requires specialist knowledge and tools to ensure public money is dispensed overseas in the best way. DFID has had many years to hone this model, maintaining a focus on outcomes rather than process.

However, to continue as a separate department, DFID should improve how it aligns traditional aid objectives with Britain’s strategic goals. Part of the reason that the aid budget is being hived off from direct DFID control is for other departments to spend aid in a non-traditional way.

The Conflict, Stability and Security Fund is a good example of such a hybrid model, combining typical aid outcomes such as global peace and prosperity with UK national security objectives. There is no reason why DFID can’t adopt this mind-set wholesale, ensuring that aid spending always works to benefit Britain and the recipient state. This measure would help DFID to take back control of the aid budget, permitting the high levels of transparency and scrutiny that come with it.

Preserving our ODA Spend

An even greater reason to commit to DFID and its funding is for the supporting role it plays in enabling strong foreign policy. This role will be critical as we leave the EU, and is broken down into three aspects:

  • Soft power: It is becoming less common for our aid to be “tied” (conditional on political reform) and this is a good thing. Despite this, aid still helps to open doors and engenders goodwill in the beneficiary state. This allows us to exercise influence and support the important diplomatic work of the Foreign Office. Aid can also be applied more directly to instigate positive overseas reform. For example, using aid to lead investment in sustainable solutions which tackle global environmental challenges.
  • Trade: With Britain leaving the EU, we will have an independent trade policy for the first time in decades. In order to develop strong trading relationships, we’ll rely on free and fair markets, which can be facilitated through a concept known as ‘Secondary Benefits’. The idea is that by developing overseas economies we open up markets in which to do business – an approach that’s been championed by Alok Sharma. Secondary Benefits also emerge incidentally during the implementation of aid programmes. For example, an aid funded health programme could be leveraged to sell NHS expertise, within or beyond the scope of that particular programme.
  • Global Leadership: The UK still operates at the top table of international affairs, and this comes with certain responsibilities. The UK sets a high bar in giving generously to less well off states and we must think about the example we would set in abandoning our serious commitment to aid. Furthermore, much of our aid has a subsidiary effect of promoting our closest held values, such as democracy, the rule of law, and equality. These beliefs are by no means globally ubiquitous, and we face a challenge from countries like China and Russia aiming to spread their own contravening set of values. China, in particular, has been accused of rigging their aid, creating one sided conditional arrangements that aim to politically or economically exploit less developed countries. We must contrast this, by offering a fairer option for vulnerable nations in need of help.

Removing the 0.7 per cent overseas aid pledge

These points could appear obvious, but need reinforcing to illustrate the important and sometimes neglected benefits of retaining our leading position on aid. However, this does not mean to say we should preserve the model as it is.

We pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid, which is an arbitrary amount devised over 50 years ago based on a suggestion by the World Council of Churches. More than anything, this pledge is rigid and makes it difficult to cancel failing and wasteful projects.

We must replace this target with an outcomes-based budget, which focuses on what we want to/can achieve, rather than how much we want to spend. This could mean spending more than 0.7 per cent in some years and less in others, based on what our goals are and what’s achievable at that point in time.

Overall, DFID must continue specialising in the dispensation of aid, with the resources and Cabinet level representation that an independent department provides. Equally, our strong commitment to aid should be unwavering, as an integral arm of our foreign policy.

However, we must devise a replacement for the 0.7 per cent GDP target and make our aid as mutually beneficial as possible. This will ensure the most efficient use of public resources, and help guarantee popular support for this vital work.

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