Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP "UK’s foreign aid is vital and merging departments risks harming it"

Writing in The Times with Stephen Twigg MP, Labour Chair of the International Development Select Committee, Former Conservative SoS for International Development, Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP argues against merging DFID with other departments.

UK’s foreign aid is vital and merging departments risks harming it

At face value the prospect of merging the Department for International Development (Dfid) with the Foreign Office, as some commentators suggest, might seem compelling. But look deeper and it becomes clear that this would be a mistake. Not only might it harm the quality of UK aid, it risks undermining Britain’s global contribution.

Merging departments is not necessarily a bad thing to do. Nor is it the case that departments other than Dfid shouldn’t spend aid as a matter of principle. Aid is spent in accordance with certain agreed rules and within certain parameters, on which basis several other government departments should, and do, have access to Britain’s development and aid funds. It’s the rationale for combining departments that matters, and what this could do to the quality of UK aid and Britain’s contribution to ending extreme poverty.

The UK’s aid budget is divided among several departments, with Dfid spending about 70 per cent and other parts of Whitehall responsible for the rest. While Dfid is recognised as a world leader on aid quality and ranks highly on lists measuring donors’ performance, other departments do not always fare so well. Too often these departments do not meet the same high standards on value for money and transparency.

A new index from the anti-poverty organisation ONE highlights the huge inconsistency across government on aid spending. Different departments perform to different standards of aid effectiveness. This doesn’t only fail the people it is intended to support but contributes to public scepticism on aid. Most media criticisms of aid refer to programmes that don’t address poverty or are poorly targeted, such as funding the Chinese film industry, rather than vaccinating millions of children or funding disaster relief.

We have both seen the weight our aid carries in our global reputation. The UK is considered a “development superpower” — our continued commitment to delivering 0.7 per cent of national income in aid is applauded internationally and it builds trust among our international peers. Our habit of constantly pushing our partners to do more and better on issues such as transparency and results, and at international forums such as the OECD development assistance committee, the body that international aid rules, is respected.

But the achievements of quantity risk being undermined if we lack the necessary quality. This change will be noted by our international partners and the people we seek to support. Our standing on global issues may be weakened. Is this really something we want to do at a time when we need to show we remain a crucial player on the world stage?

Those calling for Dfid to be subsumed into another department see the spending review as the opportunity to do this. Instead they should see it as the moment for all departments spending aid to up their game. It shouldn’t be about taking the best player out of it.

Keeping Dfid as an independent department and ensuring that all UK aid is poverty focused, effective and transparent will help the UK to retain its hard-earned global reputation. And never forget that every pound of British taxpayer money spent in this way directly contributes to Britain’s long-term national interest, as well as saving lives and helping people living in desperate conditions.

**By Andrew Mitchell, a Conservative MP and former international development secretary. Stephen Twigg is a Labour MP and chairman of the international development committee.