Thursday, 23 April 2009

Committee News

A few things that happened at the International Development Select Committee meeting on April 22.

A couple of exchanges revealed the Secretary of State's apparent frustration with the larger UK development NGOs. Ealing Southall MP Virendra Sharma noted that Oxfam and ActionAid had expressed concern over the governance of the international financial institutions, and asked for Alexander's response; it was slightly tetchy. 'If I had a pound for every time Oxfam and ActionAid expressed concern, I’d be almost as rich as the IMF.' (He went on to acknowledge that both had been 'generous with regard to the comments they made at the London Summit', and agreed that both the Bank and the Fund need to be reformed.)

Later in the session, while discussing the matter of DFID's rebranding exercise, Alexander appeared to be irritated that UK NGOs fail to publicly aknowledge the extent of the funding they receive from DFID.

‘Although I am greatly admiring of the work done by development NGOs in Britain, they don’t work very hard to publicise the funds given to them by DFID. So, say, Christian Aid or Oxfam – who we fund significantly in terms of PPAs [Partnership Programme Arrangements] – understandably do not spend a lot of time telling their own supporters that they’re receiving resources from the British government. VSO is another example; 75 per cent, if I recollect properly, maybe 70 per cent, of VSO’s core funding comes from DFID. VSO has a fabulous brand and a fabulous profile among the British people; I would be quite surprised if many of them knew [that statistic]. Over time this has to change. You don’t want to be in a position of undermining the reputation of those organisations, but it is something I’m giving a lot of thought to.’
It will be interesting to see what comes of this in the upcoming...

Leeds West MP John Battle referred to a recent survey about the British public's attitudes towards development aid and DFID. Feelings are broadly positive towards the former (although the prospect of savage public spending cuts could change this); apparently only 22 per cent have even heard of the latter. Alexander remarked that is is 'not sustainable' for British taxpayers to be so unaware of the projects that they are funding. He mused that politicans might not be the best people to take this issue to the public, and revealed that he has recently asked Bill Gates to throw the weight of his business expertise behind DFID by publically expressing his belief that 'aid works'.

More specifically, it turns out that DFID has been thinking about rebranding, and the results of this process will probably appear in the upcoming White Paper. Alexander commented that he wants development aid to become as central to the British identity as the BBC and the NHS. Committee members floated 'British Aid' and 'UK Aid' as possible new identities.

Douglas Alexander referred several times to the need for IMF reform, in both governance and operations, and expressed the hope that this issue would be addressed at the Spring Meetings. Sadly, we now know that the Spring Meetings turned out to be a disappointment. Rachel Turner (Director of DFID's International Finance division) emphasised the need for the fast disbursement of the funds agreed at the G20; she was confident that access quotas would be doubled (as they indeed were), and that gold sales proceeds would be used to help the poorest countries. As it turned out, the IMF Committee bucked at the fence on this one. DFID also strongly supports the view that the conditions attached to IMF loans should be reduced; but the Spring Meetings provided no concrete commitments on this issue, and recent research by ActionAid and others has indicated that the IMF continues to impose inappropriate conditions on LDCs.

Alexander set out some more specific reform aids with regard to the Banks, including an extra African seat on the board, and a transparent and merit-based procedure for selecting the Bank's President (fancy that!). In less detail, he alluded to the need for deeper, 'Phase II' reform, which he hopes to see progress on by the October meeting.

Alexander commented that he had 'worked hard' to get the Doha language (expressing the need to bring the round to a conclusion) into the final G20 communique. The incoming Obama administration is significant in this respect, but he noted that US officials had been 'candid' that given the current state of flux in administration positions, and the fact that incoming US Trade Representative Ron Kirk's most recent public position was as Mayor of Dallas, it might take some time for the new kids to get up to speed.

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