The UK has lost its reputation as a “development superpower,” Andrew Mitchell has said as he lamented “fierce and draconian” cuts to the overseas aid budget and a “lacuna” of development skills at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).
The new development minister said Britain losing this status was “bemoaned around the world” and that the FCDO was considering overhauling departmental structures to address this.
Mr Mitchell was highly critical of the merger of the Department for International Development with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2020 and later led a parliamentary revolt against the reduction in the foreign aid budget.
The former international development secretary, who was recently brought back into government by Rishi Sunak, told MPs on the International Development Committee on Tuesday that aspects of the merger were “sub-optimal” and that one of his priorities was to “repair those structural difficulties”.
He said: “When Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were in government, we spent 0.51% (of national income) on international development and we were without question a development superpower.
“I would argue that in 2012 when David Cameron was our prime minister, we were also spending 0.51% and, in my view, we were without question a development superpower.
“Today we are actually spending 0.55 and, you know, let’s not beat about the bush, we are not a development superpower at the moment and that is something that is bemoaned around the world.”
The slashing of the target to spend 0.7% of national income on official development assistance to 0.5% had contributed to the decline of Britain’s position as a development leader, Mr Mitchell argued.
“If the budget gets changed and you’re unable to fulfil the commitments that you’ve made, that is clearly very bad for the country’s reputation,” he said.
“My job now as a minister is to live with the decision of the Government and the House of Commons and try and make sure that we cut the cake in the best and most professional possible way given the constraints that we face.”
He said officials working in poor countries who are implementing the spending reductions are now on their “third lot of cuts” to the bilateral aid programme.
“Quite apart from the very severe effects this has on the people we’re trying to help, it’s also a pretty severe effect on those officials and diplomats who have to effect and move government policy and deliver these cuts and they are very, very harsh indeed.”
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced in last month’s autumn statement that aid spending will not be returned to its goal of 0.7% of national income “until the fiscal system allows”, despite Mr Mitchell’s best efforts to persuade him to reinstate the higher target.
The UK is spending more of its international development budget domestically than in poor developing countries, as billions of pounds are being used by the Home Office to house Ukrainian refugees.
Mr Mitchell conceded he did not know the full extent of the refugee expenditure and that it was “open-ended”, but said he was “hopeful those costs will diminish” amid concerns the money is being diverted from helping the most vulnerable around the world.
The MP for Sutton Coldfield said he was setting up a new cabinet committee, or “star chamber”, to “up the quality” of foreign aid spending.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly had commissioned work within the FCDO on possible structural changes, Mr Mitchell said.
“There are at the moment 200 vacancies in what were DFID jobs, and there is no question that there are morale issues amongst the development staff,” the FCDO minister told MPs.
“There’s a lacuna in the skill there.”
Mr Mitchell also said he was “rather surprised” to see Britain still spends foreign aid in China.
He said bilateral aid to the world’s second-largest economy has stopped but admitted continuing spending on Chevening scholarships and the British Council “does great damage to the reputation of the development budget”.