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Talk of global Britain is ‘largely mistaken’

06 March 2020

At an event at St James’s, Piccadilly, Rory Stewart spoke to Edward Stourton about the importance of international aid

Elizabeth Dalziel/Christian Aid

LAST WEEK, Rory Stewart, a former Secretary of State for International Development, spoke frankly about his experience in the department, and his doubts about aspirations for “global Britain”.

The event, chaired by the BBC journalist Edward Stourton, was organised by Christian Aid and took place at St James’s, Piccadilly, in Westminster.

Edward Stourton (ES): One of your predecessors, an old university friend, said that it [DfID Secretary] is quite simply the best job in the world. Is that what you found?

Rory Stewart (RS): Unfortunately not. This role of Secretary of State for International Development on the surface is . . . one of the great dream roles of the world. You have, very unusually, as a British government minister, access to an incredible amount of money — £14 billion a year — and no restrictions on how you can spend it; and nobody in the Treasury is allowed to take the money away from you, because it’s 0.7 per cent of our GNI.

So, obviously, for somebody like me, who’d been a minister in DEFRA and a minister in the Ministry of Justice and a minister in the Foreign Office — all of whom were very short of money, to some extent — this was an extraordinary thing. International development is, however, a very, very strange business.

Fourteen billion pounds sounds like an enormous amount of money; but, in fact, in relation to the countries in which you’re operating, it isn’t as much as you’d think. Pakistan and Nigeria were our two biggest programmes; about £400 million a year in Nigeria and £400 million a year in Pakistan. That sum of money [£400 million] sounds enormous, but it is only one per cent of the budget of the Pakistan armed forces, and it is only about 0.1 per cent of the GDP of Nigeria. So, in terms of the leverage it actually gives you over countries of that scale, it’s rather limited.

The second issue is about implementation, about action, and about delivering things on the ground. The problem for the DfID is that there is an enormous amount of money, but [there are] very, very few staff. So, if you go to Zambia, for example, the Germans, through the German Development Agency, will have about 150 staff on the ground. DfID [is] lucky if it has 11 or 12, dealing with an enormous budget. And, increasingly, few people who are health advisers or education advisers — in other words, few people with detailed understanding of what is actually happening deep in the field. Increasingly, [it is] people who are essentially managing contracts and increasingly locked in embassy compounds.

Elizabeth Dalziel/Christian AidElizabeth Dalziel/Christian Aid

I remember, in South Sudan, saying to our humanitarian adviser that I’d like him to spend at least 50 per cent of his life outside the office in the field, and getting a very hollow laugh back. It was unimaginable for the humanitarian adviser in South Sudan to be spending half the time in the field.

So, as Secretary of State for International Development, I felt a deep, deep sense of frustration, a deep sense of a world in which there was a lot of strategy, a lot of high-level jargon, a lot of statements about poverty, about governance, about accountability, but a real difficulty reassuring myself that what we were actually doing in the health clinic on the ground in Nigeria was really making a difference to people’s lives.


ES: I want to ask you what you make of recent developments around that job, because we’ve had a reshuffle, the new Secretary of State [Anne-Marie Trevelyan] has a record of being a bit sceptical about the value of aid — indeed, I think, has supported the idea that charity begins at home. What do you think that this reshuffle tells us about the direction this government is likely to take on this issue?

RS: I think there is a decent way of asking testing questions about international aid, and then there is a bad way of doing it. I think we should all begin in this room with the fundamental observation that we have a profound moral obligation towards people who are much, much poorer than Britain is, and that we ought to be working, morning, noon, and night, to think about how we can engage with those people and transform their lives. So, I am not a charity-begins-at-home person.

But we should also be able to point out that the record of international development over the past 40 years has been very, very uncertain — and we should be open and transparent and brutal with ourselves about the things that have gone wrong.

For example, we have had major development programmes in Malawi over the past 40 years, but Malawi is actually no wealthier today than it was 40 years ago — in fact, in some indicators, it’s less well off than it was 60 years ago. We need to ask ourselves: what went wrong? How were we able to spend all this money — we and many other people — and have such little result?

To look at one particular issue in Malawi: we boasted that we got almost 90 per cent of girls into primary school; and yet, at the end of seven years of education, more than 80 per cent of those girls are unable to read or write: they’re not literate.

That is something that we need to take very seriously. This is a very powerful fact, because we tend to stop as international development community with targets. The Conservative Government was a real one for targets. Getting 100 million girls into school is irrelevant if, at the end of seven years, you are not learning to read or write.

We need to be confident enough to say that much of what we do isn’t good enough, while still being proud of the idea of helping people in other countries.


ES: But just pursuing that example: is that something that we can actually have an impact on, or is that getting us too deeply into other countries’ business? Actually making sure that what happens in the schools is what you’d like to happen in the schools?

RS: One hundred per cent. One hundred per cent. We need to set minimum standards.

I have seen clinics funded by the British government. I’ve turned up in rural Kaduna, in clinics where there has been human excrement on the floor; no sheets on the beds; a fan, but the nearest electricity ten miles away; no medicines on the shelves; and very few patients making enough to go anywhere near this clinic. This is not worth doing. Do things properly, set a minimum quality standard, and own it.

If there was one message for government, it’s take responsibility. If you’re putting the gift of the British people — UK aid — over the door of a clinic, own that clinic, feel shame about it if it isn’t working. And that goes for every problem, I think, in domestic government, too. We live in a system that is not taking responsibility. We’ve become incredibly good at blaming other people, blaming resource cuts, blaming the system, blaming the structure, instead of saying “The buck stops here: this is mine.”


ES: One suggestion that I pick up . . . is that that budget you mention will indeed be protected, but that the rules about what counts as aid might be changed; that, as it was suggested to me, you could spend more of it on bullets and less on babies, for example. Is that something you hear at all, and would it worry you if that is doing the rounds in Whitehall?

RS: If you start spending that money on bullets rather than babies, you’ve missed the point of what that money is there to do. Don’t call it international development if you’re spending it on soldiers.

The point about international development is to have funds available which are genuinely designed to try to engage with issues of poverty and, for my money, environment, climate change, and education, health. And I’d like us to do more thoughtful things with infrastructure.

Elizabeth Dalziel/Christian AidElizabeth Dalziel/Christian Aid

However, I do think that there is something to be said for the idea that we could make our engagement with other people’s countries more personal and more connected to what we do in Britain. Christian Aid is a very good organisation because it keeps a very good grass-roots connection to British citizens and to people here in Britain.

The danger with DfID is it becomes a little bit technocratic, and a little bit distant, and it behaves a little bit like the World Bank, and it sees itself as a group of rather distant experts, [a] very few of them spending colossal sums of money, and it loses what it is going to need actually to keep going. To defend the 0.7 per cent, we need to make the 0.7 per cent come alive for people in Britain. We need to be more human; we need to be less technocratic; we need people, including volunteers, including small charities, including people in Britain, to feel what those connections are. And to feel how they can be helpful.

There’s a danger that we create a world where we say: oh, this stuff of international development is so scientific, so expert, so technocratic that we have no time for the voluntary efforts of people from Britain. But, to do it, DfID needs more staff. The stupidest thing DfID has done is to cut the number of staff, so that, generally, about 1.5 per cent, two per cent, of its budget is spent on staff. This is completely mad.


ES: One of the things that you said when you took over the job was that you wanted to put the climate-change crisis at the heart of development work. How does that link operate?

RS: The first thing I did [as Secretary of State] was to increase to £2 billion a year the amount we spend on climate and the environment. If we are in the middle of a climate crisis, it seemed insane that DfID, with all this money from British taxpayers, was not really leaning into this space.

However, it was more of a fight than you would think. There are a lot of economists who are very, very worried about talking about climate and environment, and are worried that you’re taking money away from poor people today for the benefit of poor people in the future. This, I think, is a mistake. If we do not get our response to climate and the environment right, there will be 100 million more poor people within ten years. It’s very short-sighted thinking. We’re about to host the climate conference here in London.

But there are other fights, too. The second thing that I had a fight with in DfID was that we were still, through our various agencies, funding shale-oil and dirty-petroleum-oil generation in places like Senegal. Again, the answer was, “Oh, no, but these are very poor countries, they need energy, so we need to fund these things.” Nonsense.

If we’re going to invest in electricity generation, then invest in renewable-energy generation. It’s not as though there is far too much money around for renewable-energy generation. The private sector can pick up the bill if they insist on pushing ahead with big fossil-fuel stuff.


ES: You mention the COP meeting this year, and I suppose that raises the question whether, in your view, this Government is as serious about climate change as it should be, particularly the Prime Minister.

RS: Well, it remains to be seen. I don’t yet feel there is the ambition and the energy, and I’d like to see it. I want Britain to take the lead on this. The only reason that we will not do better than Paris . . . is lack of political will, lack of energy, lack of imagination, lack of dedication.


ES: The Government talks a lot about “global Britain”. Do you think that’s simply an illusion, or is it a genuine aspiration?

RS: It’s largely, I’m afraid, mistaken. Many of the people who talk about “global Britain” haven’t spent enough time recently in other people’s countries. Britain can be, of course, a significant power, but a significant power comparable to France or maybe Germany. Britain is not a power like the United States or China. . . It does make a sort of sense in the United States to ask what their policy is towards Burundi. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense, or not the same sense, in Britain. And even the US’s position is diminishing in the world. The US position in Africa is not what it was 20 years ago. . .

Chinese power is there, but even Chinese power is probably not what they think. . . Even in the very poorest countries of the world . . . people are much more nationalistic than you would think, much less inclined to be bullied by people, however wealthy they are, whatever they tell them to do. This is why one of the ideas, that you can somehow use your international aid as a lever to force people to do things they don’t want to do, is not true. If you said to the President of Tanzania, “I’m going to take away your £300 million of aid unless you do something,” nine times out of ten he’d say “Take the £300 million of aid, I’m not interested.” Because the world is changing.

Will Crowne/DFIDRory Stewart in Kenya in July 2019, when he was Secretary of State for International Development

So, Britain can do things, but it needs to choose where it does them. Broadly speaking, Britain needs to divide the world into four categories of countries. There are countries which are in so much trouble where it is very difficult for Britain to do very much: South Sudan is probably one of these examples. We can provide humanitarian assistance, but it will be very difficult for a country like Britain to pretend it’s going to create a peaceful, stable governance situation in South Sudan.

At the other extreme are giant countries like Nigeria and Pakistan, where their economies are so big and the countries are so large it’s very difficult to believe that Britain is actually decisively going to be able to shift. Nigeria has a GDP of £500 billion a year — it’s very difficult for £400 million to make much difference there.

And that leaves two categories of country. That leaves fragile states, where — and this may be true in Afghanistan, and, in a different way, possibly in countries like Somalia — where it’s possible to do something; but, again, the security problems are so bad that progress is difficult.

This leaves the final category, which is medium-sized states, lower middle-income states, where Britain has a good historical relationship. I’m talking about countries like Ghana, where, probably, if we had a grown-up relationship, invested strongly, had the right diplomatic presence, had the right development relationship, and we had the right trade relationship, we could have a fruitful ten or 20 years. And there are probably 20 countries like that around the world, where we should be focusing. But that’s the way you think about what it means to be a country about the size of France as opposed to about the size of the United States. . .

“Ought” implies “can”. You do not have a moral obligation, or any kind of obligation, to do what you cannot do. And the problem for Britain is that the entire core budget of the Foreign Office is less than half the amount we spend on the Winter Fuel Allowance. It is half the amount that the French government spends on its foreign service. In Zambia, at the moment, which is a Commonwealth country on the edge of middle income, where there are an enormous number of British interests, would you like to guess how many UK-based British diplomats we have in Zambia? Two.

This is the truth of our presence in the world. Brexit, non-Brexit, after Brexit, unless you double the size of the Foreign Office, quadruple the staffing of DfID, radically increase the amount of resources we’re putting into these things, these are fantasies. We simply do not have enough people who speak those languages well, who understand enough about those countries, who are spending long enough on the ground, who are deep enough in rural areas, to really get the benefit of these things.


Listen to an extended version of the conversation on the Church Times Podcast.

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