January 18, 2013 8:02 pm

Tories urged to celebrate aid achievements

Senior Conservatives should stop sniping and celebrate what the government is doing on international aid, the former aid secretary has said.

In a rebuttal to Tory critics of the UK’s growing aid budget, Andrew Mitchell has urged his cabinet colleagues to stand up and “make the case” for development spending, which has attracted anger from Tory backbenchers as the government pushes to meet its target of spending 0.7 per cent of national income on overseas aid.

Mr Mitchell insisted the £8.6bn budget could be spent “twice over” and still the government could “look the British taxpayer in the eye” knowing the money had been well used.

The comments, which show a different side to the man who lost his job as the government’s chief whip in the “plebgate” scandal, come amid a growing furore over the impending £2.5bn increase to the UK’s aid budget in April. The 29 per cent cash increase in the Department for International Development’s budget in just one year comes at a time when the rest of government spending is at best standing still and at worst undergoing steep cuts.

The increase has led some to speculate over the efficiency of the UK’s aid budget. Bill Cash, the Conservative backbencher, said: “Foreign aid is frequently wasted and misdirected and there is a big issue with corruption. We need to target part of our aid to essential aid such as water sanitation and the other part to enterprise and the elimination of corruption. If we focused it in this way, we could cut the aid bill.”

Mr Mitchell, who shadowed DfID between 2005 and 2010 and then ran it until September last year, believes the recent spate of political cynicism over the aid budget is in part fuelled by the absence of senior coalition members – the prime minister excepted – publicly defending it.

“It is important that all of us explain to hard-pressed taxpayers why it really matters . . . to make the case; otherwise it won’t be properly understood,” he said.

Mr Mitchell, who argues that a commitment to international development is now “part of the Conservative party’s DNA”, was replaced as international development secretary in September by Justine Greening, who reportedly greeted her reshuffle with the comment that she “didn’t come into politics to distribute money to people in the third world”.

Despite Mr Mitchell’s contention, Ms Greening’s reported views are far from a minority within the Tory party, where a view persists that DfID already has more money than it knows what to do with. Or, in the words of Jo Johnson, public accounts committee member, that the department has to “shovel money out of the door” to spend its rapidly expanding budget.

This view can be partially corroborated by an analysis of DfID’s £146m spending programme in Afghanistan. For the past two years, funds spent in the first quarter of the financial year have been a tiny fraction of those spent in the final quarter – indicative of an end-of-financial-year dash to spend allocated cash.

But the allegation does not ring true elsewhere. In March 2011, DfID announced that spending would end in 16 countries, including Burundi and Gambia, in an aim to make UK aid more focused and effective. In November the £284m-a-year programme in India was added to the list. Although controversial, the move has been cited as evidence against those who argue the department is rash with its cash.

In fact, the fastest growing category of UK development spending between 2010-11 and 2011-12 was the 75 per cent increase in the UK Border Agency’s costs for supporting refugees in the UK – a £20m expense which counts towards the UK’s 0.7 per cent target thanks to the quirk of international statistics.

But there are examples where multimillion pound projects go wrong, including a £9m scheme in Nigeria aimed at promoting a business-enabling environment which a review found had no official buy-in from the Nigerian government.

Another, in Afghanistan – this time with a £37m budget – was so poorly devised its primary targets were incapable of being measured.

Both schemes have since been substantially redesigned. “When we get it right we have to get across our successes, and when we get it wrong we have to put up our hands and say ‘it’s wrong’ and put it right,” Mr Mitchell said.

But the case for increased spending is clear, Mr Mitchell believes. Referring to a recent visit to a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he said: “You look into the eyes of people who are just like us, but who are absolutely dirt poor and who have nothing, and you understand . . . the ability we have to change that and the huge national interest we have in changing it.”

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