Unfortunately, it seems like the Conservative-Liberal coalition Government might be giving them half of what they want – and not the good part. Yet another DfID-related leak has revealed that the British aid budget will from now on be allocated with a much stronger emphasis on UK security; in effect, moving aid away from being a stand-alone policy area and into a branch of a foreign policy drive aimed at ensuring the safety of the British public. Cynics will say this is nothing new, but it is surely more explicit and more closely felt than at any time since DfID’s formation.
Just to be clear: the leaked document does not suggest that Britain stop funding schools, or healthcare or even economic growth per se. DfID could continue to be a paragon of virtue in international development circles. What it does mean is that whenever DfID want to spend on these things, it will need to justify them on UK national security grounds. Since UK national security is best served by stable, prosperous, well-educated countries existing around the world this isn’t necessarily a recipe for disaster.
However, it’s another indication that the new Government want to make DfID, hitherto one of the best aid agencies to work with from a developing country point of view, more of a tool for an overall UK Government strategy founded in ideology and realpolitik. This is a real worry. Like the news from a few weeks back that DfID was dropping a number of commitments previously agreed, allegedly including the Paris Declaration, it is an indication that the Government wants to free up DfID to respond to its own priorities first and foremost.
Up til now, one of the reasons why DfID has developed such a good reputation was because it had a fairly high degree of operational independence from the rest of Government. This gave it the flexibility to pursue better aid allocations in the context of wider donor and Government spending, sometimes by taking on risk through budget support and other times by improving resource allocation procedures (budgeting, Parliamentary oversight and the like).
Giving DfID a requirement to justify what they do based on UK national security introduces an important restraint to them: it means that they cannot simply respond to country needs given the allocation of other resources, but needs to ensure it’s own resources pass a fitness test at home. What’s more, this all but rules out general budget support (from the recipient point of view, the best way of getting aid, if you care about building the ability of Government to allocate and account for funds), since there can be no guarantee on where this money will be spent.
All in all, this is a worrying sign though not a guarantee of catastrophe.