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Reshuffle: DFID: Mitchell’s record, and the challenges facing Greening

4 September 2012

First posted on Left Foot Forward.

As Justine Greening is announced as the new international development secretary following today’s reshuffle, it is worth pausing to reflect on the record of her outgoing predecessor Andrew Mitchell.

Some in the development sector have been quick to praise Mitchell. First, for having defended DFID against the vocal critics on the Tory backbenches and in the right-wing media; and second, for playing his part in the ring-fencing of the aid budget at a time when almost all other government departments have had their budgets cut in the name of austerity.

If that is how we frame success, then it would indeed be trite to deny he was adept at doing both. But should we accept that framing? What does it say about the rest of his Party that so many opposed what he was doing? And the protection of the aid budget at a time of cuts is only laudable if you accept their framing of the economy.

As Labour and economists from Krugman to Stiglitz to Blanchflower have argued, the government should not be making such deep cuts anyway. It is hurting but it is not working, and the aid budget has not escaped that – their mismanagement of the economy has seen GNI fall, making 0.7% less than it would have been, a £1.2 billion cut.

In any case, true leadership is more than preventing an agenda from going backward, true leadership is about driving things forward.

So what else can we say in Mitchell’s defence?

Conservative Friends of International Development lauded his aid effectiveness drive. And who wouldn’t want aid to be more effective? But the OECD already had DFID as a world leader on aid effectiveness under Labour. The push by Mitchell fed into the Tories’ wider framing of Labour as reckless spenders, creating a ‘mess’ they needed to ‘clean up’ – but by portraying DFID in this light he created a rod for his own back by feeding the myth that aid money is wasted, when the vast majority is not.

Where Mitchell did leave a mark is with his preference for private sector solutions, declaring in 2010:

“One of the things we will do with DFID… is to inject a little bit more business DNA.”

In their green paper they said they would not be ‘prescriptive’ about how basic services would be achieved and would not have ‘ideological preconceptions’ – yet Mitchell’s actions in government leave that claim looking highly disingenuous.

So as Justine Greening enters DFID’s offices and meets her new team of civil servants for the first time, here are three areas of policy where that preference for the private sector should be re-moded:

1. The Private Sector department’s focus on basic services should be removed. Under Mitchell, DFID has begun to support private solutions to delivering basic services over the public sector. Their support for low-fee private schools, by giving poor people ‘vouchers’ to pay school fees, is based more on conservative ideological preferences than solid evidence and must be reversed.

2. The decision made in parallel to halve budget sector support should also be reversed. Budget support helps countries build their own health and education systems by giving them the funds required to recruit and retain teachers, doctors and nurses. By halving it, the government is undermining UK support for public services.

3. The plan for a Centre for Progressive Health Care Financing should be revived. One of Mitchell’s first actions was to cancel Labour’s plans for a new organisation to support poor countries to achieve universal access to health care. Around the world an increasing number of countries including India are seeking to adopt universal health care systems modelled on our own NHS – the UK should be supporting them not turning our back.

Finally, and more broadly, there is the issue of leadership.

Mitchell and the government do deserve some credit the role the UK played at the global vaccine summit in 2011 to secure more financing for vaccinations, and for hosting the family planning and hunger meetings. But the government’s overall approach to development suffers from a lack of coherency that has seen other departments’ actions undermine DFID’s efforts.

The Treasury’s move in the budget to provide tax loopholes to British companies operating abroad is one example – it could cost developing countries £4 billion in lost tax revenues. Efforts to fight hunger are undermined by the government’s blocking of an amendment to the financial services bill that would increase transparency on food and commodity speculation – which distort food prices.

And why was Mitchell not at the Rio+20 Summit on climate change? Greening needs to show greater leadership and bring back the cross-departmental coherency Labour had in 2010.

Cameron’s chairing of the UN Post-MDG Review could be a chance for him and Greening to show some real vision, ambition and leadership. We need a bold new agenda that goes beyond aid and includes a focus on inequality, inclusive growth and creating fairer tax and trade systems. Cameron and Greening should push for that agenda in this UN review, and ensure Britain’s actions abroad – across all government departments – reflect that approach.

That may be too much to ask. This reshuffle has, after all, just seen one Conservative replaced by another – the values remain the same; plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

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