Last week’s reshuffle saw the Mayor of London Boris Johnson attack David Cameron over what he claimed was the “demotion” of Transport Secretary Justine Greening to International Development Secretary. DiA writer Nate Barker explores the possibilities that lay ahead for the Department for International Development.
The last act of Andrew Mitchell before he handed the red box over to Justine Greening was to authorise a partial restoration of aid to Rwanda, drawing criticism from human rights organisations and the Congolese government. They claim the Rwandan government is still funding armed rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo, while the British government believes Rwanda’s constructive engagement in recent peace talks justifies the carrot of a partial aid restoration.
This move is one of the few actions the Department for International Development (DfID) has taken under the coalition that has caused controversy; you only need to compare the lack of criticism received compared to other departments. In fact, by making a firm commitment to a spending target of 0.7% Gross National Income (GNI) as Overseas Development Aid (ODA), and standing by its aid programme to India, DfID has been attacked more often from the Right than the Left. Under Mitchell, the department has aimed for a more technocratic style of management, placing a premium on achieving targets, an increase in transparency, and developing best practice models, while trying to shift towards a decision-making process based primarily on efficacy rather than ideology.
Will this continue under his successor? Notice how unlike, for example, the new Health, Justice, or Transport Secretary, Greening’s politics have not been scrutinised for clues as to how she will manage her new portfolio. So far, she has only had a chance to reiterate the Government’s commitment to their 0.7% target, and there is little from her previous stint at Transport to guide us – other than perhaps a better understanding of the issues surrounding large infrastructure projects after her work on the controversial high-speed rail project. Having said that, Greening has spent time volunteering in Africa as part of the Conservative’s Project Umubano, where she was training Rwandan primary teachers in English language teaching for two weeks in 2008. Hopefully, the experience will at least have given Greening a useful insight into how the aid programmes that DfID works on are delivered on the ground.
So, will it be business as usual at the DfID, with Greening offering a safe pair of hands to keep things on track within her predecessor’s framework? This may be Cameron’s intention, but while DfID’s record so far is impressive, there is still room for improvement. One of the few areas where DfID did act ideologically was to emphasise the role the private sector can play in delivering, in line with Conservative ideals. For example, while helping to build local economies is vital in lifting countries out of poverty, DfID has been providing primary education by funding private schools, which diverts funding from the existing state sector education system, despite the evidence showing that this would be a more effective use of aid money. If Greening is truly committed to promoting a results-driven approach at DfID, then reviewing some of the more nakedly ideological policies would be an excellent start.
DfID could also use its seat at the Cabinet table more effectively to voice how decisions taken by the government impact on developing nations, taking leadership of international development issues across departments. One case in point is the government’s recent changes to tax rules for UK-owned companies operating abroad, which makes it easier for them to reduce their tax liabilities. Exposing developing nations to losses in tax revenues of up to £4bn completely undermines the work DfID has done in helping countries tighten up their tax collection procedures, and stronger advocacy from DfID when the policies were being discussed could have headed this off.
This isn’t the only example; I could also point out how DfID works to reduce global hunger by maintaining stable prices, while the government opposes attempts to restrict agricultural speculation. Or, how work on empowering the poor to cultivate their land and increase local food security is counteracted by a focus on land rights that benefits large companies, who typically focus on cash crops for export, like the cattle ranches and soybean plantations causing deforestation in the Amazon.
Critics may point out that, as Greening has already found herself out in the cold over the third runway at Heathrow, she may lack the political capital necessary to fight the international development case. However, Greening’s position is stronger than it may first appear. As a vocal opponent of Heathrow, Greening is unlikely to advance further under a government that is manoeuvring towards a pro-expansion policy after the next election. This gives her a certain freedom of action; she has very little to lose by speaking her mind and fighting for her department. If Greening so wishes, she has a real opportunity to make sure DfID’s voice is heard in the cabinet – and being seen to fight her department’s corner would be a career-enhancing move for a minister with few other options.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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