Mitchell: perception created by DfID leak is “total bollocks”

Andrew Mitchell invited Left Foot Forward for a conversation about his approach to international development. He dismissed the perception created by a DfID leak as "total bollocks"

This article is jointly written by Will Straw and David Taylor

I almost fell off my chair last week when I received a call from International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, congratulating Left Foot Forward on our story about a leaked internal DfID document and inviting us for a conversation about the Coalition’s development policies.

David Taylor and I went to his spacious office near Buckingham Palace on Monday. “Are you the Labour apparatchik?” he jokingly asked David who heads up the Labour Campaign for International Development as well as writing for LFF. After taking our seats, the shoeless Mitchell was quick to claim that the perception created by the leak was “total and utter bollocks” and that any new Government had the right to a “bottom up” review of existing practice. Mitchell insists that his new approach – focusing on results rather than budget lines – is the only way to win public support for development in a tightened spending environment.

Mitchell was keen to stress that we should wait until the conclusion of his review of DfID’s operations before passing judgement on his programme. This is a reasonable point of view but we’d be advised to avoid holding our breath. According to a Written Parliamentary answer, the review of Bilateral and Multilateral aid will not conclude until early 2011. With what’s being dropped in the public domain, it is hardly surprising that NGO reaction has been one of concern.

 

Labour’s record

Mitchell was quick to claim that the Labour party’s response to his “output-based approach” had been tribal when the “real enemies to aid were not in Government but sceptics out there” (a reference to right-wing press).

We put it to the Development Secretary that the Tories were being tribal themselves by misrepresenting Labour’s approach as entirely “input-based” when a number of output-based commitments such as “Support 8 million children in school in Africa by 2010” from a 2009 White Paper were in the list of commitments that Mitchell wants to replace. Mitchell told us that “I never rubbish the last Government’s record on international development”. He has certainly used Green Papers and Select Committee hearings to praise Labour’s record but the day before we met, a Sunday Times interview with him reported:

“the Conservatives are determined there will not be a repeat of the kind of abuses that slipped through the net under Labour, such as the time the President of Malawi bought himself a luxury jet with British taxpayers’ money.”

The truth in this instance was that DfID clawed back that money by withdrawing aid to the Government and channelling it through NGOs until a time the Malawian government gave reassurances it would not happen again.

Meanwhile, DfID has been praised for its record on aid effectiveness. Mitchell’s claim that, “We want to do for quality what Labour did for quantity” is a nice sound bite, but inaccurate. Indeed, the proud record may be in jeopardy. As we were meeting, a new report by leading global affairs think tank Chatham House warned against Mitchell’s ‘cash-on-delivery’ approach. It argues that in places like Tanzania – where UK aid has helped four million more children in school by financing the construction of 4,000 primary schools – the emphasis must be on the development of national systems and capacity rather than rewarding outputs.

We put it to Andrew Mitchell that instead of being on the defensive about UK aid he should be bolder in defending Britain’s proud record. If he believes UK aid is not a partisan issue then why not rebut sceptics by being more assertive? As we have reported, the last Government left DfID a world leading aid ministry that was regarded by NGOs and the OECD alike as being a leader in aid effectiveness and spending money well.

 

Watching the commitments

We pressed Mitchell that any dropped spending commitments (for example, £8.5 billion on education and £6 billion on health) would need to be replaced by equivalent commitments that brought the same results in terms of kids in school or hospitals built. If that can be achieved without a clear commitment on funding, then Mitchell will deserve praise, but the jury is out until we know the full picture.

The Secretary of State confirmed that money would be prioritised on countries suffering from conflict, particularly Afghanistan, and those in the Horn of Africa – a region which he said would “run through this administration like a river”. The focus is no bad thing, but we pressed Mitchell on whether this would mean money being diverted from existing commitments. Would it, for example, mean less children in school in Tanzania or midwives in Malawi? Mitchell assured us that the increases in DfID’s budget, in line with the 0.7 per cent commitment, would mean this wouldn’t be the case.

A subsequent leak, reported in the Observer, suggested that DfID would drop its commitment to help partner governments “abolish user fees”. Mitchell stated that basic services would be “free at the point of need”, while maintaining he would take a “non-ideological” approach to whether basic services were provided by the public or private sector. Free at the point of need is different than ‘free at the point of use’ and many in the development sector are deeply critical of the plans in the Tories’ pre-election Green Paper for ‘vouchers’ for private schools and private health care provision. Oxfam have concluded that:

“The vast majority of evidence shows that public services deliver best for poor people in most countries.”

On climate change, Mitchell obfuscated on whether aid for climate change adaptation would be additional to existing development spending. He said only that it would be decided after the spending review in October. Mitchell had previously stated he would wait until after the Copenhagen talks before making a decision on climate aid.

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Andrew Mitchell, fresh from a trip to Pakistan, deserves praise for reaching out to his critics and clearly explaining the rationale behind his plans. But questions remain over what will replace the list of cherished commitments, whether it will genuinely deliver results, and what impact it will have on other countries – like Japan and Italy – who barely need an excuse to cut aid. We’ll be watching all the way.

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