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Beyond a Fringe: Tales from a reformed Establishment lackey By Andrew Mitchell

Beyond a Fringe: Tales from a reformed Establishment lackey

By Andrew Mitchell




I enjoyed Andrew Mitchell’s memoir, which made me laugh, and think. Here is a brief review, reflecting on development aspects.

Andrew Mitchells’ commitment to international development is heart-felt and deeply rooted. It ran through his five years as Shadow Secretary of State, from 2005-10, and his two and a bit years as Secretary of State at DFID. And it has been prominent since ‘cyclegate’ forced him to leave the Government in 2012: in his engagement on Syria, Yemen, money laundering, and, most recently, the unsuccessful campaigns to preserve DFIDDepartment for International Development and 0.7.  His new memoir reveals an evident, unaffected commitment to peace, poverty reduction, economic development, the welfare of women and girls, and the role of the UK in helping deliver all of those. Good for him.

The memoir is more, though, than an opportunity to rehearse past engagements and tell a few (in fact, many) good stories. It also lays claim to a legacy, in six main areas:

First, in shaping a centre-right narrative on UK international development policy, and winning over the Conservative Party to that cause, not least through the ten-year Umubano project, which each year took Conservative politicians (including David Cameron) and party members to Rwanda;

Second, and a necessary component of the first, improving value-for-money through a focus on results, delivered inter alia by the Bilateral and Multilateral Aid Reviews, the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review, and subsequent aid allocation;

Third, again related, greater transparency and accountability, via setting up the Independent Commission on Aid Impact, to provide independent scrutiny;

Fourth, a focus on high priority themes, including conflict reduction, post-conflict recovery, jobs, vaccination, family planning, girls’ education, and water and sanitation.

Fifth, restructuring CDCCenters for Disease Control and Prevention to help deliver the jobs and prosperity agenda, turning it from a hands-off funding institution, a ‘fund of funds’, into a full-fledged development bank;

And finally, building popular commitment to the development cause, including by tweaking UK aid in order to provide more support to charities.

Probably others will claim some share in this legacy (as David Cameron does, for example, in his own memoir) – but Andrew Mitchell is happy to share the credit for big shifts in policy, like the commitment to legislating for 0.7, or the UK role in drafting the Sustainable Development Goals. Indeed, he admits to being sceptical about the commitment to match Labour and legislate for 0.7, being persuaded by David Cameron and George Osborne - even if the latter admitted (if we are to believe Michael Ashcroft and Isobel Oakeshott) that it was to ‘keep the aid agencies off my back’. He is also generous in his praise of Labour’s development efforts over the period 1997-2010.

There is plenty to say about each of these topics, and I have mostly said it over the years: whether it is possible successfully to marry altruism and self-interest in a centre-right narative; whether a results-based approach negates the value of an adaptive approach to change; whether impact assessment by one country is better than joint assessment by many; whether the bilateral and multilateral aid reviews should have been combined, in order to improve overall aid allocation; the difficulty of dealing with regimes like Rwanda, when human rights are in play; and whatever happened to climate change. Many of those debates remain live today.

For now, just three points on which it would have been good to read more:  preparing for office; working with civil servants; and sustaining momentum.

On preparing for office

First, on preparing for office. Andrew Mitchell was the best-prepared Secretary of State ever, well-travelled from his time with the merchant bank, Lazard, and then having spent five years in opposition preparing for the role. By contrast, Clare Short had less than a year as Shadow minister for international development before the 1997 election. This long apprenticeship allowed Andrew Mitchell and his team to build contacts with the UK community of think-tanks and NGOs, to travel, to work with the party, and to build an agenda.

I don’t think it is true, as he suggests, that no-one would talk to the Conservatives before he arrived. In fact, rather the reverse: Andrew Mitchell was wary of people like us, whom he saw initially as potential special interest lobbyists.  Anyway, at ODI, we worked with Gary Streeter, Caroline Spelman, John Bercow and Alan Duncan, Andrew Mitchell’s predecessors in the post. And it is certainly the case that ODIOverseas Development Institute (London) and others were able to support the Lilley Commission on Globalisation and Global Poverty in 2007, and Andrew Mitchell’s own One World Conservatism Green Paper in 2009. We also worked closely with Richard Parr and Philippa Buckley, his two specialist advisers. We gave Andrew Mitchell a platform at ODI. And we were always available to advise at short notice on topics like the creation of ICAI.

This was not a party political favour: we worked in a similar way with all the party spokespeople. It was core to our mission as an independent London-based think-tank. The point, though, is that it obviously pays to have incoming ministers who are well-prepared and know what they want to achieve. It would have been interesting to have Andrew Mitchell reflect on this in the last chapter of his memoir, ‘What I have learned’.

On working with civil servants

Second, though, what the forceful and assertive minister wants to achieve may or may not be ‘right’; and plans have to be processed through the civil service machine.  Andrew Mitchell is full of praise for DFIDDepartment for International Development and its staff: it was not the ‘big NGONon-governmental organisation down the road’, as often caricatured, but an effective development agency staffed by experienced and committed individuals. Surprise, surprise. But there is much more to say about the relationship between ministers and civil servants during this period.

Some aspects of Andrew Mitchell’s agenda were pretty controversial. For example, I helped organise a meeting at IDSInstitute for Development Studies, Sussex in Brighton so that he could hear from his critics on the results agenda, people like Robert Chambers and Ros Eyben. Andrew Mitchell made some important comments, then and later, about avoiding narrow bean-counting, but the potential conflict did not disappear, between an ex-ante results-based approach to aid allocation, and the necessarily complex, messy, and evolutionary nature of development. How did this play out within DFID?

Another example is climate change. I well remember civil servants at the time struggling to convince Andrew Mitchell that this was an important issue. In the end, they had to take him to Indonesia and show him deforestation, to drive the urgency home. I pestered him to give a speech on climate change, which he eventually did in November 2010. In his Introduction he observed that I, ‘in . . . imitable and ever-opportunistic manner (had) been encouraging me to give this speech almost since the day I became Secretary of State for International Development’. It was a good speech. But, tellingly, climate change is barely mentioned in the book.

And one more point on this, which is that DFIDDepartment for International Development during this time was seen as both highly effective and at the same time somewhat of a global bully, overly concerned with its own, heavy, internal procedures, and somewhat neglectful of its international partnerships. It was also seen as weak on policy coherence across Government. The OECD/DAC review in 2014 made these points. I summarised them here. Was that ministers? Or civil servants?

Not all the problems listed by the DACDevelopment Assistance Committee (of the OECD) can be laid at the feet of Andrew Mitchell, not least because he had been out of office for two years by the time of the peer review. But it would be fascinating to know more about how the tensions played out between ministers and civil servants. We hear Andrew Mitchell’s side of the story in the memoir, especially his encouragement of disagreement and debate. Who will write an account from the other side?

On sustaining momentum

Finally, the big one. What has happened to the centre-right narrative on development? And what does it take in general to sustain a political commitment? Andrew Mitchell praises David Cameron’s enthusiasm for development issues in his time as leader, and is scathing about Boris Johnson’s alleged betrayal of promises to him personally on retaining both 0.7 and DFID. So, is this just about leadership?   Or is it about building a movement? A core part of the legacy appears to be at risk. Surely, there is a chapter to be added in the second edition of the book.

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