Aid for Aid’s Sake: Why we need a Department for International Development

Since the announcement of Priti Patel as Secretary of Sate for International Development in Theresa May’s cabinet, there has been a marked increase in the level of interest in the department. Priti Patel was, perhaps, a surprising choice for the job. After all, only three years ago she suggested that British interests could be better served by focusing on trade rather than development. Doing so could, in her words, “bring more prosperity to the developing world and enable greater wealth transfers to be made from the UK by fostering greater trade and private sector investment opportunities.” Her appointment as secretary of state sits uncomfortably with her suggestion that DFID, a department established less than 20 years ago, be radically redesigned.

Now, it is certainly true that increased trade could be beneficial to the developing world, if it is pursued in a way which is not limiting to developing states. It is a fundamental principle of economics that countries should specialise their production, focusing on industries where they have a comparative advantage. But such specialisation comes at the cost of industries which are weaker. Developed states can afford these costs – they can subsidise domestic industries – but this is more challenging in the developing world. That is not to say that we should have no trade with developing states, but that it must be pursued in a controlled way, which benefits both economies. Trade is not the answer to all the world’s problems.

That trade is imperfect is only one flaw in the suggestion that we should emphasise trade and downplay development aid. Whereas trade can have a net positive impact on an economy, it cannot be targeted in the way aid can be; the two are fundamentally different. And while increased national income will push up tax receipts and mean that a government can spend more, a developing state’s priorities may not be the same as our priorities for international development. Perhaps a state would pursue large infrastructure projects, which increase its prestige, but do little to help its workers. Perhaps it would increase funding for education over all, but not target marginalised groups such as people with disabilities. Put another way, our development aid can be targeted so it helps the people most in need. This is surely a good in itself.

It is also worth noting that humanitarian aid, which is perhaps what most people think of when foreign aid is mentioned, is a comparatively small part of what DFID view’s as its priorities. Instead of simply feeding the hungry (taking responsibility for what might be seen as a domestic failure), most aid has a long-term focus. That word ‘development’ is crucial. I recently returned from three months volunteering with a disability rights NGO in Ghana, through a scheme call International Citizen Service (ICS), which DFID funds. As part of this, I was able to attend a meeting with DFID and FCO staff based in Ghana. DFID’s current priorities in Ghana where outlined – good governance, economic development, and human and social development – and within these, focuses include education, especially for girls, health (including focuses on malaria and reproductive health), preventing gender-based violence, investment support for small business owners and farmers, and ensuring government accountability. These focuses clearly the target some of the Millennium Development Goals and their successors, the Sustainable Development Goals, benefiting groups which are among the poorest and most marginalised in Ghana.

Sustainable development makes us all richer.

Progress towards the SDGs will have a significant positive impact on Ghana as a whole (and DFID’s work in Ghana may be taken as representative of its approach globally). More women in education means more women able to get jobs, live independently, and achieve great things. Better preventative health care means less government spending on acute care. A great number of successful small businesses means a boost to the economy as a whole. A government help to account regularly is one which will work harder in the interests of it is people. DFID is not taking a short term approach, giving people food today, but rather making them better able to feed themselves tomorrow, and thus improving the overall nature of the state.

As such, aid is also a valuable source of soft power. Whether this is admitted or not, it is clear from the stated priorities of DFID that maintaining and enhancing British soft power is a key aspect of its work. While good governance received only 13% of DFID Ghana’s 2015-16 spending, it was nonetheless a priority, and of course it is good governance as we define it: a representative democracy which upholds human rights, which is a responsible player on the world stage and which is held to account by an active civil society. These are very ‘British’ values which it would be hard to entrench so deeply with a trade agreement. True, EU trade agreements have included Human Rights requirements since the 1990s, but these cannot have the same impact on a country’s collective consciousness as results from working directly to foster our own vision of good governance.

The way aid embeds British values is perhaps clearest at the local level. ICS sends volunteers from the UK to work with local counterparts which means that every project, whether focusing on giving women access to reproductive healthcare or helping local craftspeople establish cooperatives, is influenced by the attitudes and values of those volunteers. Volunteers are actively encouraged to share their perspectives on issues such as war and peace, globalisation, trade, or human rights through regular ‘group reflections’ meaning that British perspectives are given a wider airing. More broadly I know of projects where there were tensions between the views of UK and in-country volunteers – and in the majority of situations, the UK perspectives won out. After all, if the UK volunteers reported that the project partners and in-country volunteers would not accept that marital rape can exist conceptually, let alone in reality (yes, that really was an issue in one group – albeit one which was resolved), a project focusing on sexual and reproductive health would be unlikely to have a long-term future.

It is clear that our overseas aid, which is set at 0.7% of gross national income, has significant value, both in human terms, and as a boost to British soft power. Yet, in the last few days, a Whitehall source has suggested that this aid spending could be used to ‘leverage’ trade deals. At present, UK law makes putting such terms on aid illegal, but that there is an appetite for such an idea in Whitehall suggests that our new government has not fully understood the benefits of soft power. If we put terms on aid, it is likely to reduce the number of states willing to take such aid, which reduces our global influence, influence which could help us when striking trade deals. It also ignores the moral principle that we provide development assistance because it is the right thing to do, because nobody should live in poverty, because everyone benefits from increased prosperity. If this is the direction in which our new government is headed, then one has to wonder whether they are guided by any ideal save the god of profit.


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