DFID comes of age: what next for the 21 year-old?

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The UK’s Department for International Development has just turned 21.  What does this coming of age mean for the Department?

DFID certainly has plenty of happy moments to toast – helping create the Millenium Development Goals, playing a prominent role in the formation of the Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunisation (which has saved 10 million lives), and meeting the international aid target of 0.7% of GNI, to name but three.  The Department might also wince at a few embarrassing moments – staff here remember Hilary Benn being greeted in one African country with a ‘Welcome Mrs Hilary Benn’ banner; and more seriously, few will quickly forget Priti Patel’s unsanctioned visit to the occupied Golan Heights.   

But will this high-achiever now be able to shoulder the responsibilities of adulthood?

When DFID was established the Department was given the rare privilege (amongst development ministries globally) of a full Secretary of State (SoS).  Someone to speak up for the most marginalised at the highest levels of Government. Furthermore, her remit included a range of policies affecting those in poverty, not just aid.  DFID’s SoS sits on Cabinet Committees relevant to the environment, gender, health, drugs and others.  

The lessons of recent years have underlined the importance of this approach.  We now have an even clearer idea of the importance of the international tax regime, extractive industries, arms sales, migration, drug policies and climate change for development, to name but a few.  These policies are often more important than aid in determining whether communities can escape poverty. In just one example, when Nigeria became the first African country to embrace the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in 2004, they identified $560m in missing tax payments.

This isn’t so much about changing the way the aid budget is spent – particularly as UK aid spent by other Departments beyond DFID has been criticised by Parliament’s Development Select Committee as less coherent and less poverty-focused, and is amongst the least transparent in the global aid community, whereas DFID scores top marks in all these areas.  It is about giving DFID a greater role in the scrutiny of wider UK policies that affect those in poverty.

DFID’s scope to scrutinise these policies should be strengthened and encouraged as the Department passes into adulthood, as Owen Barder has also argued here.  This is the ideal way to counter any impression that it is shedding the mantle of global leadership that it has worn for almost two decades, and would emphatically reassert the UK as a trail-blazer for international development.

This is particularly pertinent now,  as the UK prepares to withdraw from the EU.  Brexit has increased the temptation to shrink back from a values-based stance on global issues, and instead adopt a mercantilist foreign policy, doing whatever it takes to get ahead.  This might seem politically astute in the short-term, but it would be a strategic mistake, causing severe damage to the UK’s reputation on the international stage.  

Historically, DFID’s focus on eliminating poverty has allowed it to act as an international conscience for the British Government – advising on trade policy, tax, climate change and diplomacy as well as aid.  This role is required now more than ever. The Department should be given the keys to the house (in true coming of age tradition), and allowed greater freedom to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, at the highest echelons of the British Government.  

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