Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘overseas aid’

UK development aid: money (literally) well spent

Since taking up her post a few months ago, Britain’s new International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, has been talking up how she’s going to crackdown on waste and fraud in the way her budget is spent.

In her first speech to a Tory party conference as Secretary of State yesterday, she continued in this vein,  promising to “follow the money” to root out waste and corruption.

A laudable ambition which no one can argue with.

But what constitutes “waste” seems to depend quite a bit on your overall view of aid.

Critics of the amount the UK spends on aid – and last year the Department for International Development, DFID, spent just over £10 billion – seem to define waste as spending on things they disapprove of.

Popular tabloids, like the Mail, which has run a campaign to reduce the amount spent on development aid, and the Express, for instance, highlight stories about what they describe as money being squandered on trivial things.

Fraud, on the other hand, is something where it’s easier for everyone to agree on a definition.

So please bear with me, as a look at some statistics tells an interesting story.

Last year, figures recently released by DFID show £1.04 million of spending was lost to fraud.

That works out at 0.0104% of the budget.

Compare that with the rest of government spending.

With a little digging, I turned up fraud figures from 2013/14 financial year which show that of total government spending, 5.5% was lost to dishonest activity.

This was in a year when DFID’s figures show it lost 0.0076% of its spend in this way.

If you compare that to the NHS for the same year, fraud cost the health service 1.97% of its spending, while the proportion for Whitehall as a whole was 3.72%.

Now, one penny lost to fraud is clearly one penny too much.

But these figures suggest DFID does a relatively rigorous job of ensuring its budget is spent honestly – which is even more impressive when you consider most of it is given to international organisations, NGOs and other governments who actually control the day to day spending of the money.

Ask any NGO or international organisation about the detailed monitoring and reporting they are required to do by DFID – a perspective you rarely hear from the critics who highlight misuse of the aid budget.

That said; is aid fraud a growing problem?

The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted from the percentages above that the amount of aid money identified as lost to fraud has gone up over the past two years – in cash terms it has risen from £772,000 to £1,040,000.

On the surface that looks like a growing problem.

But as with many statistics, this needs to be seen in context.

The apparent growth in fraud can be largely put down to more effective detection and reporting of the problem. So, rather than the problem getting worse, it seems DFID is getting better at spotting it – the department says the higher figure is a result of heightened scrutiny by its staff and its counter fraud unit.

Of course, that hasn’t prevented sensational headlines such as “40% leap in foreign aid cash stolen by fraudsters”.

Such reporting helps to reinforce public’s scepticism about spending their taxes on development aid.

This is a pity.

The reality is Britain’s aid budget is among the most transparent and least vulnerable to fraud across government.

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The tyranny of the seemingly urgent: why the media neglects international development

 

George Monbiot – the environment commentator – wrote a recent cri de coeur on the failure of the media – by which I think he meant most mainstream outlets – to give sufficient coverage to climate change, despite the tumbling of global temperature records and accompanying floods and droughts that are hitting people all over the world.

He’s right of course.

It’s striking how little has been published or broadcast since last December’s United Nations Paris Climate summit agreed to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees.

Do editors think the pledges – and that’s all they were – made in Paris are the last word on climate change?

A recent conversation I had with a former colleague, and a respected environment journalist, suggests they may.

He lamented that he just couldn’t get climate stories on – even with the record temperatures and constant flow of natural disaster stories so-beloved of those same editors.

Surely giving climate change prominent coverage is in the public interest, I observed.

Unarguable you might think, whatever your views on the causes of rising global temperatures.

But then, it’s not just climate change where mainstream media journalists are failing the public.

There is also scant coverage of sustainable development.

As I wrote last year, when all UN member states came together in a historic agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals that aim to produce a fairer world which actually has a long-term future, there was barely a peep of interest.

And things haven’t changed since then.

The first high level meeting to review progress towards the SDGs a couple of weeks ago, where 22 countries reported what they have done and plan to do, was largely ignored by the media.

If you do an internet search you’ll find stories on specialist development blogs and a few niche business news sites, but little else.

The only mainstream media outlet I could find that published anything was The Guardian, which actually has a development sub-index on its website. Although, even that merits only a qualified welcome given the Guardian gets the Gates Foundation to subsidise this coverage, suggesting even the editors there still don’t see development as deserving of much coverage purely on its own merits.

So why are journalists largely ignoring sustainable development?

Well, partly it’s because they are subject to the tyranny of the urgent over the important – there always seems to be something more immediate they judge needs reporting.

But they also fail to see development as a story because they’re prone to what I’d call a tramline mentality. There are certain kinds of stories they’re used to covering – be it political rows, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or even changes in interest rates –  and they think they know how to cover them.

It means they stay in their comfort zone, but it’s a failure journalistic imagination.

How to break out of this compartmentalised thinking?

One way may be to create new indices on websites and in papers to encourage journalists to see the importance of sustainable development stories.

Many papers and news sites already have “environment” pages or indices – which is not just a way to help users navigate stories, but also, I’d argue, a reflection of how journalists categorise stories in their own minds.

So one suggestion I’ve heard – and will repeat here – is to rename those indices “people and planet”.This may help editors and reporters to think about environment and development, and their impact on people’s lives – the all-important human interest angle – as deeply entwined and interrelated.

Then there is the public interest argument.

What could be more important than the future of the planet we all depend on for our very existence?

Yet, many of the editors who respond to criticism of their coverage of the foibles – and worse – of politicians by citing the public interest (even when the scale of that coverage risks turning the public off) are the same ones who routinely ignore or underplay sustainable development.

If editors don’t see coverage of such existential matters as in the public interest, there is a more mundane, but perhaps more familiar, reason for covering the issue.

That old hoary chestnut “the way taxpayers’ money is spent”.

There has been a lot of media scrutiny over the past year in the UK of the foreign aid budget, including from outlets which, shall we say, are not well-known for their international coverage.

So there is already an appetite for covering development aid.

It’s also becoming clear that from now on much of that aid is going to be prioritised according to the commitments made in Sustainable Development Goals.

So, with a bit of joining up of the dots, there may be hope that editors, who up to now have had little interest in covering the SDGs and international development, could be persuaded that there are good reasons for changing their approach.

A foreign free election – or is it?

You don’t win many votes for foreign policy.

In keeping with this thought the main parties had largely avoided talking about it so far in the campaign and been criticised as a result – until Ed Miliband’s speech at Chatham House yesterday.

But then he was taking advantage of another political adage.

You can lose votes for foreign policy.

Following the hundreds of deaths of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy, the Labour leader clearly decided it was a good moment to attack David Cameron for the ill-thought out intervention in the north African state that helped overthrow Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 and then the subsequent failure to support efforts to prevent the country collapsing into the state of anarchy the people smugglers and migrants are taking advantage of now.

As Mr Miliband tacitly acknowledged in his speech, Labour knows how foreign policy can lose you votes when he referred to learning the lessons from the 2003 Iraq invasion more than once.

He knows many of the votes his party lost to the Liberal Democrats in 2005 and 2010 were because of Iraq.

To be fair to him, Ed Miliband did more than take a pop at David Cameron’s record.

He made a reasonable fist of his speech – he pointed out the world is not a stable place at the moment and there are a variety of problems that the world’s fifth largest economy with – despite spending cuts – some of its more capable diplomatic and military services should be doing more to help tackle.

His analysis of the complex challenges facing the world ticked most of the right boxes – and he is to be praised for emphasising the threat posed by climate change and the opportunity to do something about it at the next UN climate summit in Paris in December.

But if he does replace Mr Cameron in No 10, will he follow through on his promises?

Would a Labour government re-engage with Britain’s EU partners to make the reforms many agree are needed in the revive the Union?

Would a Prime Minister Miliband increase defence spending to meet the 2% of GDP the country committed to at the last NATO summit? He hinted strongly yesterday that his party would spend more on defence without actually saying he would.

Miliband defended his opposition to military intervention against Syria which led to the government’s defeat in parliament – a vote many commentators – reading too much into it – saw as a symptom of Britain’s increasing isolationism.

He says military action is sometimes necessary, but should be a last resort and be undertaken in alliance with others, including regional powers.

But whether the voters agree is another matter.

It is notable that when the last British troops left Afghanistan after a 13 year mission last October it was a headline for a few hours and there was very little fanfare.

Neither of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were very successful in their own terms and many British people don’t seem to think the casualties suffered were worth what was achieved.

While it is true that foreign policy is not something that attracts mass interest and is often the reserve of the few, the appeal of a party like UKIP seems to derive partly from a weariness with – and wariness of – international involvement.

And also to say foreign policy has been largely absent from the campaign is only true if you define it narrowly.

Several foreign policy issues are playing a prominent part.

After all, UKIP’s raison d’etre is getting out of the EU – a more significant foreign policy move for the UK is difficult to imagine – and the Conservatives are promising an in-out referendum on membership if they win.

Immigration is a concern to many voters – all the parties talk about the need to control it – whether they are basically for or against it. And though immigration is usually categorised as domestic policy area, it cannot be seen in isolation from foreign policy.

One of the reasons migration to and from Britain is quite high is that recent governments – both the last Labour administration and the current coalition – have said they want Britain to be a global hub – not just for business, but for education, culture and diplomacy too.

Another issue that has come up in the campaign and featured in the TV debates is overseas aid – a fundamental plank of foreign policy.

UKIP are calling for the aid budget to be cut and the money spent at home, but this is an area where David Cameron is not guilty of Ed Miliband’s charge of being small-minded and inward-looking as his government protected foreign aid from cuts and he is committed to the 0.7% of GDP spending target if he is returned to power.

So foreign policy is part of the warp and weft of the campaign, but what was largely lacking until yesterday’s speech was an attempt to join up the dots and spell out a role for Britain in the world.

Will David Cameron take up the challenge to give voters the Conservatives’ overall vision for foreign policy?

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