Guardian Editorial on the Tories plans on DfID and the MOD

Good editorial piece in The Guardian on the questions surrounding the concerns the Tories will divert the aid budget to the MoD…

“International development: Coming to the aid of the party

The Disasters Emergency Committee launched its appeal for Haiti yesterday. The earthquake death toll may never be known precisely. But the terrible cost of politically motivated aid is revealed by the desperate lack of resilience that has exposed Haitians to serial crises at an unnecessarily heavy cost. The dystopia unfolding on our TV screens is a salutary backdrop to yesterday’s launch by David Cameron of a new Conservative approach to foreign affairs in general and aid policy in particular.

The Tory shadow international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, has worked hard to reposition the party’s aid policy, not least because it was seen as an important part of the quest to change voters’ perceptions. At its height, Mr Cameron even put visiting a development project in Rwanda above placating his damp constituents during the Witney floods of 2007. But the prospect of power has hardened Tory hearts. The Foreign Office never liked the independent approach of the Department for International Development, and the Treasury approvedLabour‘s commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on aid by 2013 through gritted teeth. Close observers of the process of drawing up the Tories’ aid policy describe a slow recapturing of lost ground by the foreign affairs team. By the time Mr Cameron unveiled his new approach to foreign affairs at Chatham House yesterday morning, it was clear. The pledge on 0.7% remains. But there is plenty of room for flexibility.

Mr Cameron proposes a stabilisation unit that would move in to secure peace and start essential development work. It makes good sense. Such good sense, indeed, that there is one already. It is based in DfID, but its personnel also come from the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. It has been at work in Afghanistan in the aftermath of last summer’s Operation Panther’s Claw in Helmand, where it has started a school in tents supplied by the military. It is engaged on security matters in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo too. Its budget is separate from the official aid budget.

There are potential problems to bringing aid and security too close together, as the development secretary, Douglas Alexander, admitted in a discussion organised by the New Statesman recently. No one would question the connection between insecurity and poverty: conflict resolution, peacekeeping and something approaching the rule of law are indispensable preconditions for sustainable development. It is also true that insecurity in other countries can threaten security here. But in the US, the Pentagon spends nearly a fifth of the aid budget, and American soldiers in the Africa Command initiative in Kenya, it is proposed, may build wells one day and pick up suspects the next.

And if the idea is challenging, the context in which it was made has alarm bells ringing. It began with an interview for the Guardian a fortnight ago in which Mr Mitchell suggested that the trouble with DfID was that it looked a bit too much like an NGO – a kind of Oxfam transplanted into Whitehall. He suggested that it needed to be wired into the centre of government rather more tightly, and to operate more like the civil service and less (to paraphrase) like a bunch of do-gooders. Last week it was confirmed that William Hague and Liam Fox were rolling their tanks on to DfID’s lawn. And yesterday Mr Cameron stitched it up with his description of “a tight, tied-up, progressive approach” between the department and the Foreign Office.

It is a familiar pattern in the postwar history of Whitehall and international development. Labour sets up a department that is focused on overseas poverty alleviation; officials in the Treasury and the Foreign Office fight a war of attrition against it, and the Conservatives come in and dismantle it. Yet, as the Haitian tragedy illustrates, to be effective, aid has to be shaped not by what the donors want but by what its recipients need.”

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