Justine Greening: The Reluctant Minister for International Development?
“I didn’t come into politics to distribute money to people in the Third World”, Justine Greening is said to have told PM David Cameron when he moved her from Transport to DFID in last week’s UK government reshuffle.
At first sight it looks like a double whammy for the British overseas aid programme: on the one hand, losing Andrew Mitchell who, whatever his original reasons for getting into politics, had shown every sign over the past five years that he was very happy to devote his political career to overseas aid, and who had impressed his staff and others with his sincerity, energy, and some of his ideas. On the other, finding that he’d been replaced as Secretary of State for International Development by Justine Greening who it seems would have preferred almost anything other than DFID; indeed, is said to have seen her move to DFID as a demotion.
I too regret that DFID has lost Andrew Mitchell’s leadership: he brought commitment but also a welcome degree of skepticism to his brief, and he was quite rightly very conscious of the need not to take UK taxpayers’ generosity for granted, and to treat them with respect. But what’s done is done, and I also see two bright aspects of Greening’s arrival on the scene.
First, the good news for Greening which I hope her officials have already shared with her, is that in general DFID’s role is not to “distribute money to people in the Third World” [wherever that is]. Instead, it’s to help stimulate and promote the values, institutions and practices which both enable and represent development progress. As her officials have no doubt explained, this is a challenging business bearing little relation to the distribution of money in poor communities which, as Graham Greene illustrated in The Comedians many years ago, is not usually very effective, and can contribute to conflict. If Greening likes a challenge, she should find her time at DFID very stimulating indeed.
Second, there is a great deal to be said for the idea of The Reluctant Minister. I don’t recall the exact circumstances of Douglas Alexander’s appointment to DFID in 2007, but do remember very well how his initial skepticism led him to ask much more difficult questions of DFID than his predecessors had done. At first this was confusing, and some of us doubted his commitment. The word from some corners of DFID was that “he didn’t get it”. Thank goodness for that, because as a result of his questions and the directions he set as Secretary of State, DFID produced probably its best ever White Paper – Building our Common Future - in 2009, focussed clearly on critical issues like climate change adaptation, economic recovery, and strengthened citizenship and citizen-responsive state institutions in fragile and conflict-affected countries.
DFID is a world leader among international development institutions. It’s been among the pioneers of new thinking about what “development” means, and how rich countries like the UK can promote and stimulate development in poor and fragile countries. But there are still many many questions to answer, and I’d like to think that once the new Secretary of State gets her head round her new brief, she’ll bring a fresh set of eyes to these.