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Is DfID’s Andrew Mitchell A Visionary or a Villain?

British NGOs are up in arms again.  The “again” in that sentence, is probably a tautology.  NGOs are always up in arms.  So, to be more precise, let’s say British NGOs are even more outraged than usual these days.

On Sunday, DfID internal memos were leaked to The Observer.  They revealed that Andrew Mitchell, the new International Development Secretary, plans to renege on some 90 international aid commitments made by Labour.

DfID Chief Andrew Mitchell: Visionary or Villain?

On the surface, this would appear to contradict previous Tory commitments to “ring-fence” DfID spending in the midst of massive overall budget cuts to every other government department save one.

But a recent interview given by Mitchell in The New Statesman may reveal the possible logic behind these cuts.  He states:

“The ring-fencing imposes on all of us a double duty to make sure that for every pound that is spent on the development budget from hard-pressed taxpayers, we really get 100 pence of value.”

Blogger “Roving Bandit” proposes the following hypothesis:

“DFID is looking into dropping Labour’s commitments on inputs so that it can refocus its monitoring and targets onto outputs, within the context of a ring-fenced total aid budget.”

So far, I’ve seen no hard evidence that these cuts to previous commitments are, in fact, a reprioritization of DfID’s aid goals.  However, as I’ve noted before Mitchell does seem to be saying all the right things, specifically that British aid spending should “have a proven impact on the ground”. If he is demanding that goals be determined by impact, and not by disbursements, then this is the hallmark of a major shift and one that needs to be celebrated.  It’s possible that one of the global leaders in aid is beginning to move away from the mantra of “Spend More!” which dominated the last twenty years, and is moving towards the idea of “Spend better.”

As bad journalists like to say “only time will tell”. But for now, we continue to be fond of Andrew Mitchell.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Michael Green, Scott Gilmore. Scott Gilmore said: New blog post: #AndrewMitchell @DfID_UK may be leading a major shift in how the UK allocates international aid. […]

  2. Giant panda says:

    Six of the eight commitments to be kept (agriculture, Global Fund, social accountability, research, fast start climate finance, health services) are input/spending related.

    I don’t quite understand how this sends any clear message, except to say that certain things are worth ringfencing, and the rest can go.

  3. Scott Gilmore says:

    Giant Panda – I agree, there is nothing “clear” about this. Mitchell has been talking a lot about impact and measurement but there is no explicit link to this latest move. But I don’t think there is anything wrong with deciding somethings are worth saving and others aren’t. What’s important is the why. Right now Roving Bandit has a theory, which I hope is right, but there’s not much else to go on.

  4. Re. the following:

    It’s possible that one of the global leaders in aid is beginning to move away from the mantra of “Spend More!” which dominated the last twenty years, and is moving towards the idea of “Spend better.”

    That would indeed be a welcome development and it may be what Andrew Mitchell wants us to believe but the devil lies in the detail, not in leaks to the Observer. DfID has not only promised to “ring-fence” aid spending, they have pushed to have a 0.7% of GDP aid spending target enshrined into law. This would actually *increase* aid spending by a non insubstantial £2bn per year. Given that this was among their top priorities coming into Government, it’s not easy to believe “spending better before we spend more” rhetoric, much as we wish it were true.

    We are particularly disappointed that the Coalition has decided how much to spend before the review into DfID’s current spending programmes has delivered its conclusions. Only a “top-down” aid agency could decide how much to spend before understanding which projects are worthy of UK taxpayer support.

    The current debate in the UK re. aid appears to along the following lines: projects receiving DfID support are sporadically discussed by the media and then one of two things happen: 1) DfID rightfully announces that funding to said project will be discontinued, mainly because of UK public outrage; or 2) DfID comes out in defence of the project it funds. With nothing seemingly thought through from the perspective of the aid recipients, it’s hard to take government claims to a commitment to “spend better” at face value.

    Alec van Gelder
    International Policy Network

  5. Scott Gilmore says:


    Thanks for the thoughtful response. I don’t believe that “Spend More” and “Spend Better” are mutually exclusive. What I am hoping for is that the question of how the money gets spent is being prioritized. For too long, all of the political and bureaucratic energy has been spent on how to get the money out the door with the most fanfare possible. There are indications (mind you they are ambiguous and few) that Mitchell is shifting this.

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