Written by Gwythian Prins



This article was first published in Briefings for Britain and we republish with their kind permission. 



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The news that the Department for International Development (DfID) is to be folded back into and under the FCO – henceforth FCDO – is to be welcomed at many levels. It is the first significant culling of one of the sacred cows created during the Blair era. There is a whole herd of quangos and unnecessary pieces of Whitehall and especially of the devolution experiment waiting to be slain and immolated on metaphorical bonfires of the vanities at a scale of those onto which our national herds were once thrown during the 2001 Foot & Mouth epidemic.

It is also timely, because we need to regroup and marshal all our national resources to push back aggressive Chinese Communist ‘belt and road’ imperialism, most especially in DfID’s former prime stomping ground of sub-saharan Africa, from which a straitened FCO more or less withdrew. Great Britain must once more be represented there by proper diplomats – not re-badged former Difidys, please note! That must not be allowed, or else there will be danger of a reverse takeover.

Two immediate dangers to be averted

There is a worrying precedent. It has happened before, and recently. The abolition of DECC (The Dept of Energy & Climate Change), another ideologically charged department, created on that occasion by Brown not Blair and as a vehicle for Ed Miliband, was widely welcomed. But its fusion into BIS, now BEIS (The Dept of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy), saw many ‘climate-change’ campaigning civil servants simply rebadged and indeed re-empowered in their efforts to “green” and thereby to damage the national electricity grid, which has been rendered increasingly fragile and costly since 2002. Something similar could easily happen to the FCDO. The DfID budget is four times larger than that of the FCO. There are hundreds of Difidys to deal with.

To my certain knowledge and experience there was and is huge confirmation bias and virtue-signalling among DfID officials who are true believers in the end of the nation-state, who feel themselves custodians of a pure mission above politics and beyond the UK national interest, which many despise. They are classic examples of David Goodhart’s ‘people from no-where.’ To all this baggage will now surely be added resentment at their abolition. They are not normal civil servants. What will they do? What will HR see as the line of least resistance – if not firmly resisted now?

As Baviaan, the dog-headed, barking baboon – who was quite the wisest animal in all of South Africa – told the Leopard, “The game has gone into other spots; and my advice to you, Leopard, is to go into other spots as soon as you can.” Which, oh best beloved, you will recall is what he did, with the help of the Ethiopian’s finger-prints. But he remained a leopard. And DfID officials transferred into the FCDO – from the High Veldt into the forest – will likewise remain DfIDys, with new spots to be sure. Much wiser and safer then to let them go and seek reemployment in their natural habitat of campaigning NGOs. There needs to be a large redundancy programme. It would be a dangerous mistake, and unkind too, to allow them to pretend to change their spots which I do not believe they can, in all honesty, do.

Likewise, another danger looms that must be averted. The fervent EUphilia of the FCO that was on display before, during and after the EU referendum, must not be allowed to capture and repurpose the incoming ex-DfID new resources in further efforts to keep the UK tied to or subordinate to the EU in defiance of the will of the people and of the Government. Sir Simon McDonald has just announced his imminent retirement as PUS of the FCO. A brand new Permanent Under Secretary for a brand new department is just what is required.

The ineradicable conceptual and structural flaws of DfID

All taxpayer-funded ‘aid’ is political and it is disingenuous to have ever pretended otherwise.  The structural mistake baked into the concept of DfID is right there in the name. In the UK, we have departments ‘of’ things, not departments ‘for’ things. We have campaigning groups ‘for’ things. DfID introduced that fateful elision into Whitehall culture which the Blair years proliferated by its policy of high-level horizontal transfers into the Civil Service from campaigning NGOs like Oxfam. Thirteen years ago I wrote the following:

‘If DfID continues as a department of state, it will have to work out the implication of the shift from “for” to “of” as well as what “development” and “international” mean now and should mean. The White Paper [DfID. Eliminating World Poverty: Making Governance Work for the Poor. London: HMSO, 2006] moves forwards, looking backwards… Specifically, the clutch in the title (“for”) is slipping badly. There is diminishing actual or potential transmission from a liberally funded and high revving engine (western taxpayers’ money going into aid budgets, especially for Africa) to poor people. The fifty year record of inter-governmental and structural development aid is now in, and it is disappointing. There is no convincing evidence that it has helped growth in income at all or the poor in particular. There are negative effects from structural adjustment and [matters are] not as represented at p.13 of the White Paper. Why? Three reasons: because aid dependency saps enterprise and distorts recipient government priorities; because the purposes of most post-colonial states are broadly not based on execution of a social contract, but are to form an arena for competition to control spoils (scan the Corruption Index); because compared to their colonial civil service predecessors, today’s formal external actors, like the DfID, lack standing, time or skills; and they needs must deal with formal, internal actors. They can only with difficulty touch the informal political economy, where the real action is.’

I shall return below to the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne, where I lectured on those matters in 2007, because Anne-Marie Trevelyan and the new FCDO ministers will still need to grapple with these same DfID ‘legacy’ issues in their new setting.

Why abolition is so essential: DfID’s cultural arrogance & historical obsolescence

The abolition of DfID is a moment of personal satisfaction for me. I have been battling what DfID stood for all my career; and so the good news took me back to two particular memories: one in 1974 and a second, already indicated, in Eastbourne in November 2007.

One night in 1974, as a young Cambridge postgraduate researcher, I was sitting beside a fire under a star-lit African sky in a Lozi village in Senanga district, east of the Zambezi, deep in the bush near nzila ya lihule, the Prostitutes’ Way, a long-distance footpath once used by migrant labourers going down to work on the gold mines of the Witwatersrand. My research on late nineteenth century history in former Barotseland (Bulozi), a Kingdom now uncomfortably the Western Province of Zambia, that was granted similar rights by the British to those given to the Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana), took me far and wide, learning to read the landscape and gathering oral testimony from elderly men and women who still recalled the epic times of their childhoods that were still then, just, at the threshold of human memory. After a couple of intense years, my siLozi was sufficient that I sometimes travelled alone; and on that evening as we chatted around the fire, as a hot young idealist, I warmed to my topic.

Aid agencies were pressing the Zambian Dept of Agriculture to get – actually to compel – villagers like my hosts to plant higher yielding hybrid maize (SR-52) instead of their lower yielding but indigenously adapted varieties. The problem with SR-52 was that it required both pesticides and fertilisers to thrive to full potential; and that locked villagers into new cash requirements and fragile supply chains. If the chain broke for any reason, the crop failure would be worse than a reliable lower yield from low-input indigenised maize. Therefore I saw SR-52 as a threat to their food security and so, yes, I tried to sabotage the aid programme. That was my plea that star-lit night: don’t co-operate. Stick with what you are doing.

An old man wearing faded khaki battle fatigues listened and then turned to me. He said something that I have never forgotten. “Young mukuwa (white man),” he said. “Why are you telling us all this? I am old enough to be your grandfather and we have known you people of old. We know that you are very clever making things” – he gestured towards my Landrover visible at the edge of the firelight, outside the village – “but we also know that there is part of the whiteman’s mind that is permanently mad. When I was with Monty in the desert,” he continued – and he had Eighth Army patches still: he had been a carrier with the Rhodesian forces –  “I saw the effect of the weapons that you make; and on the radio we hear of bombs far bigger still. You say that you will never use them but we know you better. So therefore, kind as it is of you, if you are going to blow us all up, why concern yourself with our maize?”


[to be continued with Part II tomorrow]

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