When Tamsyn Barton was summoned before MPs last month to be quizzed on her suitability to run the official aid watchdog, she was asked about priorities in the post. She insisted she planned ‘to build back public trust in the effectiveness of aid,’ admitting support for the government’s £13.4bn spending spree was waning. This rising concern is unsurprising given a tide of sex abuse scandals, furores over fat cat pay, disclosures of dodgy behaviour and endless exposure of appalling waste. Sadly the core problem is a government policy that shows contempt for the public. Voters see politicians running an indebted economy who impose tax rises and spending cuts at home while squandering vast sums on vanity projects abroad. This is arrogance of the highest order, especially when Westminster closes ranks to back a ridiculous spending target on aid brushed aside by most major nations. And few things highlight this attitude more than the appointment of Dr Barton herself to such a critical post.
For once, the issue is not remuneration – although her taxpayer-funded package of at least £92,960 plus ‘benefits’ and a hefty pension is a world away from the poor people she claims to serve. But the Independent Commission for Aid Impact is the only official body in a bloated sector to have shown any steel to criticise spendthrift policies – and now ministers have placed it in the patsy hands of a cheerleading insider.
Barton’s appointment smacks of an attempt to close down criticism. For you would struggle to find anyone whose career makes them less suitable to lead a watchdog meant to stand up for public interests against a powerful, scandal-stained sector. ‘The need for aid is greater than ever,’ claimed Barton earlier this year – yet global poverty is falling at its fastest rate in history thanks to capitalism, technology and scientific advances.
The ex-Labour party member has spent nearly half her career at the department for international development, although much of this time appears to have been spent in Britain churning out policy papers and devising strategies. And like so many others in this industry, she has switched easily between Whitehall and charities reliant on its largesse.
There was a spell doling out development cash in Africa and Asia for the European Union, with her curriculum vitae boasting how she ‘regularly appeared before the European Parliament to answer questions and present to the relevant Committees.’ And her last job before she was handed this post? Chief executive of Bond, an umbrella group for over 400 aid organisations, that is the main cheerleader for profligate government policies and that has been known to attack aid critics.
This body told MPs that Dfid – which pays the highest average wages in Whitehall – offers ‘the gold standard’ for effective spending. Never mind cash going to terrorists, soaring salaries at charities and consultancies, blowing millions on a Caribbean island to build little more than beach bars and pumping cash into a bloodstained regime in Rwanda that sponsors the Arsenal team.
I exposed all these stories. Bond’s response under Barton was to hold focus groups into Daily Mail readers, which concluded ‘emotion is the way forward…the route forward for charities will not be about fighting the rational with the rational.’
Bond was defending its members, of course, since they grew fat as aid budgets swelled to fund their pay cheques, their conferences in plush hotels, their flights around the world and their shiny fleets of four wheel drives. Now its CEO has been picked to take charge of the most important investigatory body into aid spending.
Last year, Bond asked me to speak at their annual conference. Since it charges delegates to attend this two-day jamboree despite taking more than £1m annually from taxpayers, I enquired as a freelance if there might be a speaker’s fee? ‘We do not make a profit on this event,’ came back the response, offering just to cover my negligible expenses. Fair enough, I thought. Yet when I checked Bond’s 2017 accounts I found it boasting that income from this event had risen to £338,308.
Eventually they conceded the conference did make ‘a small net contribution’. A tiny incident – yet it highlights the money-driven mindset and questionable morality that plagues an industry posing as saintly saviours of the distressed and dispossessed. And this is why it is disturbing Barton, Bond’s ex-boss and a veteran aid industry insider, has been deemed fit to take the reins of a critical watchdog that has carried out some strong inquiries since it was set up by the coalition government in 2011.
One of ICAI’s first reports exposed how £1bn showered on education in three east African countries did not lift basic literacy and maths skills. It blamed Dfid for its failure to focus on whether pupils were actually learning in classrooms they funded, an example of how good intentions get undercut by grim reality. Among recent reviews was a savage report into the opaque £1bn Conflict, Stability and Security Fund complaining of ‘inadequate theories of change’. This concluded projects lacked ‘plausible indicators, baselines, targets or milestones and therefore had no way of assessing whether they were achieving their intended results.’
Such forensic reports are all too rare in a political system that clams up against aid critics, a civil service that stifles dissent and an industry that talks of transparency yet silences whistleblowers. They shatter the conspiracy of incompetence in a sector that swelled to obscene proportions despite persistent failure, shocking waste and evidence that aid thwarts democracy by inflaming corruption, fuelling conflict and fostering a culture of dependency.
Yet those MPs on the International Development Committee, supposed to protect taxpayers’ interests, simply lobbed a handful of desultory questions at Barton and then declared they were ‘very impressed’ with her mundane responses. Perhaps this was down to Barton’s declaration she intended to focus more on multilateral bodies, which is no doubt a relief for Westminster. She also seeks ‘more emphasis’ on Dfid staff rather than its spending.
This appointment shows how politicians learned nothing from scandals over sexual abuse involving the United Nations and big charities such as Oxfam and Save the Children. For at the core of those sleazy revelations lay a desperation to protect brands and keep funds flowing, relying on the same cosy nexus of connections between influential figures in the aid sector and their paymasters in Westminster.
This is either crass stupidity or a clear attempt to neuter the aid watchdog. So is it any wonder that support for these failed policies is dwindling, along with faith in our political masters and support for their dismal aid policies?
Ian Birrell is contributing editor of the Mail on Sunday