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16 August 2010

Disaster funding could be at risk

A leaked memo shows that the “ring-fenced” development budget isn’t as safe as we think.

By Caroline Crampton

Ring-fencing the development budget has long been a key part of the Conservative cuts agenda. Just last month, the International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, was on The Andrew Marr Show, defending the decision as having been taken on moral and “national interest” grounds, and denying that it had anything to do with detoxifying the Tories’ political brand. His rhetoric was unequivocal:

I am incredibly proud of the fact that David Cameron and my party has made it clear, in the good times and in the more difficult times, that we will not balance the books on the backs of the poorest people in the world.

But over the weekend, emails leaked to the Observer have revealed that even development is not safe from the cuts. The email exchange between Mitchell and the Department for International Development (DfID) director of policy, Nick Dyer, focuses on the DfID programmes that are under review, and in particular, Dyer’s recommendation that the minister should honour 19 of the department’s commitments and drop about 80.

The Observer reported that the breakdown “listed those to be dropped under five headings ranging from “strong public backing” to “unlikely to be noticed”.”

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Subsequent emails then showed that Mitchell decided to go beyond Dyer’s recommendations and keep just eight of the programmes. Among those being cut are a committment to aid effectiveness, plans to double support for global education and to push for an international arms treaty. Support for free health care worldwide is also to go, drawing sharp criticism from charity leaders.

As Gareth Thomas, shadow development secretary, has pointed out, these cuts are going to strike a blow to the image of the UK’s development efforts abroad. Most worrying of all, the Central Emergency Response Fund (Cerf), is on the list of the 80 initiatives to be dropped. The $470m fund is designed to give immediate relief in the wake of disasters such as the floods in Pakistan. Mitchell’s rhetoric on “moral right” starts to sound more than a little hollow when considered in the context of such a cut.

In a recent interview with the New Statesman, Mitchell admitted that the promise to ring-fence had not made his job any easier. He said:

My argument is that charity does indeed start at home but it doesn’t stop there, and the ring-fencing imposes on all of us a double duty to ensure that, for every pound that is spent on the development budget from hard-pressed taxpayers, we really get a hundred pence of value. That is why we made clear three or four years ago that if we won the election we would introduce independent evaluation of British aid. It is quite a testing pledge — it’s the sort of thing you say in opposition then rather regret in government — but we’ve made absolutely clear that that is what we are going to do.

As the autumn spending review looms, the pressure on departments to find spending cuts is growing, and it seems that even the supposedly protected development budget is not safe. Despite what Mitchell calls the “double duty” imposed on his department by its protected status, a silent withdrawal from the ring-fencing policy seems to be under way.


A DfID spokesperson said:

“We were the earliest and most significant donor to fund the UN Appeal for Pakistan and it is ludicrous nonsense to scaremonger in this irresponsible way.

“As the Secretary of State has made clear, all DfID programmes are currently under review to ensure they have the greatest impact on global poverty as driven by specific needs on the ground. We do not comment on leaked documents.”

UPDATE at 1700:

A source from inside DfID has since informed me that the fact that certain initiatives are being considered for cuts does not indicate a retreat from the ring-fencing of the budget itself. Though I can’t comment on the precise details of the leaked documents, I was told that the budget for development most certainly remains ring-fenced, and that money is merely being reprioritised elsewhere.

All very positive, but for my part, I still remain concerned about the initiatives that look likely to be cut, in particular the Central Emergency Response Fund. I suppose we must now await the outcome of the spending review to find out what else could be on the way out.