International aid and the Conservatives: What did we learn at the Party Conference?

by 06th Oct 2017
What was this badger doing outside the Conservative Party Conference? What was this badger doing outside the Conservative Party Conference?

A six foot badger wanders among dozens of undistracted police holding a placard, “I am innocent”. Security is called to disperse a furious mob of septuagenarians barred entry from a sell-out Brexit event where Conservative Party darling, Jacob Rees-Mogg, is headlining. Katie Hopkins arrives bewilderingly, among the conference suits and ties, in a wedding dress. And then the PM’s speech… It was a party conference which might fairly be described as ‘surreal’.

CARE had hot-footed it from Brighton and the Labour Party Conference to Manchester and the equivalent Conservative political charabanc. We were there to hear the government’s policy positions on aid, assess the Party mood, and engage in side events where conference debate really gets going (aside from in the bar). It’s a chance too to catch up with colleagues across the sector to exchange ideas, and to grab Ministers in the corridor to lobby on key priorities.

So, given the other-worldly atmosphere, what did the Conference teach us about the government and Conservative Party’s priorities on aid?

0.7%: “Let us never allow the Left to pretend they have a monopoly on compassion”

In a Prime Minister’s speech in which words stuck either agonisingly in her throat or came unstuck from the wall, one message was clear: the government’s reaffirmed commitment to spending 0.7% of GNI on international development. “Yes, charity may begin at home, but our compassion is not limited to those who carry the same passport,” said Theresa May. “We should be proud… this country is one of the few that is meeting its duty to some of the poorest people in our world.”

At numerous side events, passionate Ministers and MPs emphasised aid’s value and importance, trying to counter de-contextualised shock stories by some aid critics. In answer to complaints that it is futile to provide aid within intractable conflicts, Rory Stewart, joint FCO-DFID Minister with personal experience of living in war zones, was disarmingly straight-talking. “Sometimes UK aid is a sticking plaster,” he said. “But sometimes the moral choice we have is to do something or do nothing.”

In a rousing speech by the spirited Desmond Swayne MP, he flipped the politicised 0.7% into compelling human perspective: “Who spends 99.3% or more of their income on themselves and still has any friends left?” A bruisingly simple argument to make even the harshest critic stop for a moment.

Left, right. Left, right. The politics is back in aid

While several Ministers referred to international aid in speeches as “the right thing to do”, another descriptor commonly surfaced at conference – “soft power”. Against a backdrop of Brexit it was inevitable that the benefits of aid not only to vulnerable people overseas, but also to Britons at home, would feature heavily. As the Secretaries of State for Trade, Defence, International Aid and the Foreign Office lined up to deliver their conference speeches on the same afternoon bill titled “Promoting Global Britain”, aid was positioned as one of the new GB’s tools for achieving wins in the national self-interest.

Trade, aid and diplomacy are mutually reinforcing, said Boris Johnson under the spotlights, ranging frequently beyond his portfolio: “Free markets and deregulation and privatisation have helped lift more people out of poverty than ever in history.” In the Middle East and North Africa, peace efforts were not only right in themselves, he said, but worthwhile because they “will be the great markets of the coming century.” (Johnson warmed to his theme two hours later with controversial remarks on the potential for opening up Libya to tourism.)

“Politics is back in international development,” commented Kirsty McNeill from Save the Children, contrasting the emphasis on free trade and markets to the rights-based approach taken at the Labour Party Conference speeches. “It’s a good thing – we’re no longer debating if we should do aid, but how we should do it.”

FCO and DFID – A departmental merger or mischief-making?

Discussion of the ‘how’ to do aid at fringe events was lively, particularly given reported comments by Boris Johnson in The Sun on the first day of conference suggesting the creation of DFID in 1997 had been a “colossal mistake”. The article quoted the Foreign Secretary saying that work was underway to fuse the departments and budgets back together. That work, and indeed any significant appetite for it, was not recognised by joint FCO-DFID Minister, Alistair Burt MP, who politely rejected the remarriage proposal.

“It’s very important that the Foreign Office and DFID work together closely but retain separate identities,” said Burt, at an event with Amnesty International and Conservative Women’s Organisation. While strong cross-department coordination is vital, as he later reiterated to Devex, both the public and the majority of the Conservative Party would likely regard a merger as “a retrograde step… all the good we’ve done in recent years to persuade people that development really matters to us would get blown away for no particular good reason.”

Scrutiny of the aid sector and ‘the UN’

Given both the pressures on public finances and the need to ensure every aid penny counts for the world’s poorest, the aid budget is correctly heavily scrutinised. Priti Patel’s focus on “reform, transparency and accountability” should not only play well to aid critics, but has also been welcomed by NGOs and agencies in the sector championing those values through internal programming standards and commitments such as The Grand Bargain and Core Humanitarian Standards. The Minister quite justly emphasised value for money by for-profit suppliers and non-profit partners, but in stressing accountability to the government and taxpayers, mention of accountability to communities in humanitarian contexts was noticeably absent.

Rightly scandalised by the sexual exploitation and abuse of children, Priti Patel also announced measures aimed at increasing child protection by holding the United Nations to account to investigate all allegations and secure prosecutions of those responsible: “I have told them that all future funding is subject to them implementing the highest standards of child protection. If they don’t make the grade, believe me, they won’t get the aid.”

Efforts to increase child protection are vital, but measures to pressure UN agencies do not address crimes perpetrated by peacekeepers provided by troop-contributing countries which are, of course, not funded by DFID. This conflation of UN development agencies, the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations, the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council as one UN body to be blamed for all ills, is a short-hand also favoured by Donald Trump. Amongst the public, the confusion around a complex entity like ‘the UN’ (and who is responsible for what) is understandable; from politicians it is unhelpful.

Women and politics

At a conference which was noticeably male-dominated in attendance and speakers, it was reassuring to hear Ministers such as Rory Stewart and Alistair Burt championing women and girls’ rights while also being cognisant of the challenges in fragile and development contexts. Both Ministers expressed the view at different events that women in countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan must be listened to and not told how to achieve equality. (Similarly, in a nod to the localisation agenda, Stewart had previously noted that Somalia is only now in a better position than 10 years ago “because of our work with local partners.”)

Girls’ education emerged as the prominent conference theme, returned to by Priti Patel at a packed BOND event, reiterated by MP Stephen Crabb and championed by Alistair Burt and Andrew Mitchell MP. For the former DFID head, it was not only the solution to empowering women, but also to changing the attitudes of males who obstruct their progress. “And as I used to advise David Cameron,” said Mitchell, “getting every girl into school would cost the same as one aircraft carrier.”

While education and women’s economic inclusion are key drivers of gender equality, the importance of forging political pathways to empower women and encourage women’s political participation was left to women panellists to highlight.

“Violence that keeps women out of politics isn’t only physical,” said Shannon O’Connell of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Nor is it restricted to female activists in conflict zones such as Yemen and Somalia. “If we think it doesn’t exist here, it does, and it’s keeping women out of politics.”

“We need to get to the stage where we no longer have to think about it,” said Anne Milton MP. “But first we need to get our own house in order.”

CARE will, at its annual #March4Women next year, be marking the centenary of (limited) women’s suffrage in the UK, and these issues will feature prominently.

Overall, the number of fringe events dedicated to international aid was encouraging, but the audience of usual suspects often turning up begged the question – how do we all work harder to better communicate the value of international aid to the unconvinced, the unengaged, or the unabashed rejecters?

Suzy Madigan

Suzy Madigan is CARE International UK’s Senior Policy Advisor on Conflict and Humanitarian. She has recently returned from Somaliland where she was reporting on the effects of the drought and humanitarian response. At CARE, Suzy also works on the Yemen crisis and South Sudan, and advises thematically on conflict sensitivity, resilient markets, and cash in fragile and conflict-affected contexts.

Prior to joining CARE, Suzy worked in programming and advocacy for the United Nations, governments and NGOs, most recently in Northern Iraq within the Syrian crisis. She has addressed gang violence for the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, the reintegration of armed groups including the FARC and paramilitaries in Colombia, and reconciliation among ethnic groups in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Suzy has also written for The Independent and Huffington Post.

Email: madigan@careinternational.org

Twitter: @suzy_madigan