Will DFID be humbler after Brexit? – Nigel Thornton

Whenever over the last decade and a half I’ve asked staff in multilateral or other countries’ aid agencies  what they think of working with the UK, the answer has generally been consistent. They value our intellect and knowledge. But we come over as arrogant.

It’s a view repeated in Washington, New York, and Brussels.  Staff in bilateral donors say it too. And the Brexit vote will have done nothing to disabuse them.

Since 1997 the UK has been on a strongly outward footing, seeking to influence the priorities and operations of our partners. We have at times sought to redraw bits of the global aid architecture. This has been understood to be part of the funding deal with the British people; taxpayers need to see results. So our money has given us license to be assertive.

How the UK has engaged has changed over time. The Multilateral Aid Review (MAR) has set DFID’s agenda since 2010. The Independent Commission on Aid Impact reported in 2015:

DFID staff focus on the MAR priorities, particularly on results. We heard (from multilateral agencies and DFID staff at headquarters and country level) that this can, in practice, crowd out dialogue on wider delivery and technical issues. Details dominate, with staff micro-managing partners and getting too ‘down in the weeds’, losing sight of strategic priorities. We heard that DFID’s contribution to ideas and insights has diminished….” (Para 3.13)

Brexit will not only reset how we relate to the structures of the European Union. It will also reset how we relate to the UN and our other multilateral partners.

If (as looks likely) the new government keeps the 0.7% ODA commitment, the UK will continue to be a large financial player, able to buy influence. Since we directly channel more than 16% of our overseas aid budget through EU structures (with yet more flowing at country level) decisions are needed what to do with that cash.

Yet though we may still have the money, our political stature is severely diminished – at least in the immediate term. We know this from the response to Brexit and its aftermath (see an earlier post here). Not only a laughing stock among international organisations, we also risk (as ICAI notes above) focusing our efforts on the wrong issues, losing sight of the truly strategic.

DFID was due to issue the next version of its MAR earlier this year. It was likely to continue the 2010 agenda. Rumours suggest this was to be part of a wider package of announcements including a reset of how DFID funds civil society.

Brexit got in the way of the announcement.

It will be interesting to see whether the new Ministerial team of Priti Patel, Rory Stewart, James Wharton and Baroness Anelay adopt Justine Greening’s approach to multilateral partners.

Or perhaps Brexit will be used as an opportunity for a smarter, more knowledge led, and possibly more humble, engagement?

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