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Greening’s chance to seize the future

Explainer

Although he was often regarded as aloof by the UK development community, Andrew Mitchell’s time as Secretary of State at the Department for International Development (DFID) - along with his ministerial team - has already attracted plaudits. Most notable was his passionate defence of the UK’s role as a generous provider of aid despite difficult economic times. 

Mitchell’s phrase, ‘We will not balance the books on the backs of the world’s poor’ became the leitmotif of his personal commitment. His skilled advocacy across the Tory backbench, coupled with the Conservative party’s sustained engagement with Project Umubano in Rwanda that has seen dozens of MPs and activists visit the country, has helped build an impressive body of support for a pledge which has never enjoyed universal popularity.

That is not all: his legacy also includes pushing DFID hard on transparency, on simplifying its messaging and being clear about its ‘offer’ to the world’s poor and to the UK taxpayer. Mitchell also promoted independent scrutiny of UK aid, establishing the UK’s first aid watchdog in the form of the Independent Commission on Aid Impact (ICAI). 

His tenure also included shortcomings however:  the fixation with internal business cases and generic output measures; the seeming lack of tolerance for big ideas, preferring a narrower investment-driven approach; and the lack of any obvious ambition to position DFID at the helm of a more joined-up cross-government approach to international development.

We now welcome Justine Greening to the post of International Development Secretary and Lynne Featherstone to the ministerial team. Greening will need to hold on to key elements of Mitchell’s legacy, but where and how can she make her own mark?  A number of opportunities immediately spring to mind.

First off is the post-2015 development agenda.  For the uninitiated the debates about post-2015 can verge on the perplexing  (we so often forget how much of a bubble the development bubble has become!) but she is on board at the right time to influence and take some ownership of the UK’s take on the agenda.  David Cameron has a prominent position on the high-level panel that will recast the shared aims of the global development effort. He will need his Secretary of State to play a smart hand in identifying and working with likeminded global leaders to deliver the sort of post-2015 settlement a Conservative Prime Minister can be proud of.  Her crucial first task must be to press for a narrative that inspires a new round of commitment to global poverty reduction rather than for a set of priorities for UK spending.

There’s also a job to do to rethink how to sell the development agenda in the UKRecent research from ODI and the Institute for Public Policy Research shows, unsurprisingly, that it is evidence of things working and progress being made that tends to inspire commitment to development, rather than national self-interest or existential security risks. A lot of people feel that supporting efforts to tackle poverty elsewhere is the right thing to do but they also need to see clear evidence of progress to continue believing it is possible.

Finally, there is the need to join up the elements of the development agenda to ensure that the vital role that UK aid plays is firmly rooted in an agenda that promotes broader economic and social  development through investment, trade, closing down illicit capital flows, and improving the rule book on migration, knowledge and technology transfer -   essentially an agenda that seeks to transform rather than palliate the challenges facing emerging and developing economies.  This is where the future lies and, if she wants it, Justine Greening has an exciting opportunity to be a strong international voice for the UK on these issues.