From the TUC

Is Justine Greening now in charge of paper clips?

27 Oct 2012, by in International

The Secretary of State for International Development, Justine Greening, trained as an accountant. She is also one of the few women in David Cameron’s Cabinet. Both elements were put forward as key issues for international development in her speech this week to the annual meeting of Bond, the umbrella organisation for UK development organisations. And it makes me think that the Prime Minister, who once famously compared running DFID with being in charge of paper clips, may well have found his ideal Secretary of State.

Fair do’s, she’s right of course about the vital importance of women to development, although like her predecessor Andrew Mitchell, she puts less emphasis on women’s rights than their potential as entrepreneurs. I suspect women in developing countries would benefit far more from the right to sustainable employment with maternity leave and equal pay than access to micro-finance. But there was little new in her speech on DFID’s support for women-centred development.

What was innovative on her speech to the organisation which is the closest to a development movement that we have in the UK, post-Make Poverty History, was her radical new plan to insist on formal Ministerial approval for any DFID expenditure over £1m. She had already announced the reduction of the threshold to £5m at Conservative Party Conference, but this week she went so much further. Is this really the sort of international leadership that Britain is reduced to?

DFID, of course, has a large budget – around £8bn a year – so there must be quite a few contracts that come to more than £1m. And whilst it means Ministers are clearly accountable for more of the department’s spending decisions (not something that would have ended too happily in her previous Department, the Ministry of Transport, which messed up the West Coast franchising), surely it also means that DFID has far less flexibility to respond urgently to humanitarian disasters?

Indeed, in a Department with a budget that size, I wouldn’t be surprised if the paper clip budget is over £1m (is it? Does anyone know?) Maybe Justine has been elbowed out of the big decisions on aid as a result of the Prime Minister’s co-chairmanship of the UN High Level Panel on the post-2015 future of the Millennium Development Goals. Maybe she is now just in charge of paper clips, as David Cameron implied was the equivalent of running DFID when discussing what sort of high office he’d be prepared to accept if he lost the 2005 Conservative Party leadership race to David Davis.

Footnote: I couldn’t help thinking that some of the welcome for Greening’s reiteration of DFID’s commitment to women from development NGOs was clutching at straws. At least she didn’t abandon the commitment as she seems to have abandoned the commitment – set down in the Coalition Agreement – to legislate to spend the UN target of 0.7% of Gross National Income on overseas aid. She mentioned the commitment to spend that sum, due to be fulfilled in the next financial year by raising overseas aid spending by an eye-watering third in a single year, but not the commitment to put the issue beyond doubt or back-sliding by legislating.