Andrew Mitchell: Public support for the British aid budget has never been higher
Ignore the 'slush fund' caricature of Britain’s aid budget. We are tackling the depths of poverty and securing a more prosperous world, writes Andrew Mitchell
There is nothing that infuriates our constituents more than Britain’s foreign aid being stolen, misused or corruptly taken. And politicians being complacent about this are easy but legitimate prey for journalists holding them to account.
But, equally, the caricature of Britain’s aid budget as some sort of slush fund deployed by do-gooder politicians at the expense of taxpayers is totally wrong.
The effectiveness of British aid changed radically when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Before that, aid was largely used by the great powers to win over or sustain support for the Soviet Pact or the Western Alliance.
And fair’s fair, the Blair-Brown axis saw the indispensable requirement for progress met when Clare Short set up the Department for International Development – DfID, dedicated to securing effective and sustainable development. The existence of a separate department dedicated to the elimination of poverty marked a step change in our contribution, and the bringing together of some of the brightest and most committed civil servants in Britain.
Then, when the coalition government was elected, I like to think we took British development policy to new levels; we wired DfID more comprehensively into Whitehall, making it a stronger and more collegiate part of the British government machine. We put tackling conflict and building prosperity at the centre of British development policy. And we set up the Independent Commission for Aid Impact – the ICAI, which reports not to ministers who can sweep inconvenient truths under the carpet if they were so minded, but to parliament and the International Development Select Committee, which exists to hold ministers to account. This means that where there is concern or worry about wastage or corruption in the way that British taxpayers’ money is spent, there is an entity that is independent and which can investigate without fear or favour.
It is this focus on results which, in 2010, became an absolute priority for the government that Mrs May’s administration will, I am sure, champion.
In 2010, the Conservative-led government confirmed our promise, first made in opposition, that we would allocate 0.7% of our gross national income to international development and abide by the clear rules set down by the Development Committee of the OECD as to what counts as aid and development. But we also made clear that we expected every pound of hard earned taxpayers’ money to deliver 100 pence of value on the ground.
Results, results, results was our maxim as we came into government in coalition, and I am personally incredibly proud of having been a member of a Conservative-led government which delivered on the 0.7% promise to the world’s poorest and most desperate people, even at a time of great austerity in Britain.
And although you might not believe it from some elements of the press, polling research showed that support for the government’s international development policies at that time increased – markedly amongst women and those under the age of 35, but also across the population of Britain as a whole.
Our international development policies are broadly seen as right in principle and strongly in Britain’s national interest.
It is this success which Mrs May and Priti Patel, the new development secretary, have made clear that they will build on.
There is in fact remarkable agreement about the effectiveness of Britain’s aid and development; only five people voted against the law which enshrines our 0.7% commitment. At the recent debate in the House of Commons, held to discuss the petition organised by the Daily Mail, virtually no member spoke against this commitment.
So hopefully we can now all move on, as the commitment is clear and unequivocal and the rules governing the use of aid money is firmly supported and honoured by the government and the mainstream political parties.
The task now is to subject all spending to yet stronger scrutiny and accountability, and it is this that the new secretary of state has rightly prioritised.
Brexit also gives us a huge opportunity to work out for ourselves how best to spend the more than £1bn of British aid which hitherto has gone through the European Union.
In spite of British leadership and the effort to drive up the quality of EU aid, the European Union remains less effective than it should be.
Brexit means Britain can now ensure this vital taxpayer resource is used most effectively to tackle the depths of international poverty, save lives and help create a safer and more prosperous world.
Andrew Mitchell is Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield and former international development secretary (2010-2012)