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28 August 2018

Theresa May’s interest in foreign aid is patchy, but her party is increasingly sincere

A position that emerged as a political tactic has become one that many Tory MPs are willing to sacrifice capital for. 

By Richard Darlington

Politicians are often accused of wanting to “have their cake and eat it”. So when the Prime Minister arrived in South Africa this morning to headlines about her “unashamed” intention to use UK aid to boost British companies invests in Africa, she was perhaps just conforming to type.

While billed as a new partnership for Africa, many African leaders will already consider the aid of foreign donors to be an instrument used to get their own way. On a continent where politics is often winner takes all, and power dynamics dominate not just politics and economics but everyday life, Theresa May’s visit is less of a headline grabber than the Kenyan president’s invitation to see Trump or the hosting of 28 leaders in Beijing to discuss African infrastructure.

Britain has always been viewed differently in Africa. Partly because of the post-colonial past, but also because of the contrast with other donors in more recent times. The UK’s 2002 International Development Act clarifies the primary role of UK aid as “poverty reduction”. As a result, technocrats in African capitals have considered Britain to be a different kind of donor. Unlike the Americans, who have an aid agency within their state department, Britain’s development department is seen as a source of expertise; separate to the diplomats pursuing the UK’s national interest, or the trade missions promoting British companies. As well as consistently scoring highly on global indexes for effectiveness and transparency, Dfid is seen as a donor that helps African governments tackle complex problems which others won’t risk.

Recently, the Commonwealth Development Corporation has been criticised both for being too risky and not risky enough. The CDC is now the preferred vehicle for investing UK aid to unlock economic development in African economies, helping them to one day graduate beyond aid and stand on their own two feet. But motivations mater and a faith in civil servants’ abilities to “walk and chew gum at the same time” can be a dangerous thing.

While Dfid’s top civil servant confidently declared at the Institute for Government that there is no problem with operating within the overlapping circles of this Venn diagram, others further down the food chain can get confused by mixed messages and struggle to ride two tigers. Indeed, privately, CDC officials will tell you that they often retrofit one or more of the UN’s 17 Global Goals into the final evaluation of their investments, irrespective of what was intended at the outset.

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Alive to this problem, parliament’s cross-party International Development Select Committee published a hard-hitting report at the start of the summer, warning the government of the consequences of a drift in the focus of their intentions; as more than a quarter of UK aid is now spent by departments other than the one set up, designed, trained, structured and rigorously evaluated to actually spend it.  

Brexit has given Theresa May a reason to take a renewed interest in Africa, as well as other emerging economy markets in Asia and South America. And yet, President Macron has managed nine trips to Africa over the last year, visiting 11 different countries.

And there is a political ditch on both sides of the road she is trying to travel. It’s not controversial to suggest that Cameron’s embrace of the international development agenda was part of a wider (and, let’s face it, electorally successful) detoxification strategy. May seems to be keeping faith with it as a tool to try a build a credible “Global Britain” brand, at a time when other evidence points to the contrary. As one journalist put it this morning: “UK exports to South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya last year totalled £7bn. UK exports to EU were worth £274bn.”

But with her majesty’s official opposition publishing a thorough document on development policy earlier this year – which applies a human rights lens to the entire agenda – the latest Tory rebranding exercise is under threat. While new think tanks like Onward work up expansive and millennial focused forward offers on housing, and find social proof points on comfort with multiculturalism, young cosmopolitan voters are having their social liberalism challenged by May.   

In her South Africa speech, she seems to be trying to retrofit a Brexit inspired politics into an existing policy agenda. Yet the Conservative Party has changed. No really, it has! Many Conservative MPs have got the “religion” on development and not just the dozen or so former Dfid ministers who now sit on the backbenches. Tory backbenchers from otherwise warring tribes have development as an issue on which they can lay down their arms, agreeing that it’s the right thing to do. As a political agenda, it already does plenty of heavy lifting for them in their constituencies. Because most MPs understand maths, they know that junking British aid wouldn’t buy the votes of enough voters upset about a wide sweep of austerity driven cuts and that now the deficit reduction frame has been junked by the Chancellor, this is an issue that is worth toughing out.