| Good while it lasted
Some aspects of Clare Short’s departure from the government were so bizarre that many people will share the feelings the prime minister is reported to have expressed silently in cabinet last Thursday. Noting her absence and circling a finger by his head, he imparted a belief that she was, in every sense, not all there.
Her performance just before the curtain fell and the accusations she later sprayed round the House of Commons in her resignation speech obscure a truth about Ms Short. Though ostensibly a political eccentric and sometimes wayward, she is in fact a strong-minded woman with certain unshakeable opinions, who directed the business of aid and development from the Department for International Development by something pretty close to the diktat of which she now accuses the prime minister.
Her habit of occasionally breaking the ties of loyalty that are supposed to govern the conduct of ministers and being outspoken proved useful cards in her hand. Colleagues thought twice before starting an argument with her. She won more unchallenged freedom to run her department as she thought fit than most departmental ministers enjoy.
The top aid agencies have a clear and fair view of her virtues and her deficiencies. With a seat in the cabinet and a budget of £3 billion, she got aid and development higher on the political agenda than it has ever been before. Furthermore, she saw the eradication of poverty as a global and moral responsibility.
A crusade, no less; but also a crusade to be carried out in accordance with her own rules and subject to her prejudices. As the world of overseas aid became increasingly aware, Ms Short found what is best described as “private enterprise charitable endeavour” anathema.
She had no love for non-government organizations, through which so much charity in this country is channelled. To one of her socialist beliefs, it smacked of the Lady Bountiful. It conjured, I have always supposed, visions of the squire’s wife delivering home-made plum puddings to the poor families just before Christmas.
In accordance with her beliefs, it was altogether healthier and more acceptable to distribute more money through governments, Europe and the United Nations and curtail that granted by her department to the middle-ranking NGOs.
In consequence, a number of these bodies have been left to fend for themselves. One, familiar to readers because they subscribed to it in our most recent Christmas appeal, is FARM-Africa. This is a well-run NGO that thoroughly understands that the proper function of such agencies is not to dole out aid and create dependency but to enable the farmers to do more for themselves.
The money diverted by Ms Short’s policies to the UN agencies is probably well spent. In most emergencies one of those agencies, the World Food Programme, United Nations Children’s Fund or the High Commission for Refugees, becomes the lead organization and apportions tasks to appropriate NGOs.
But the same can certainly not be said of the money diverted to the European Commission. This has become a huge donor to overseas aid, but also a huge bureaucracy — whose accounting systems are open to question. Money in that system appears to be buried in deep vaults and very difficult to extract.
How the money is eventually distributed is inadequately accounted for. Even less accountable are some of the governments through whom Ms Short has shown a preference for working. Vast sums of money have been misused, and everybody knows it. In a country such as Kenya, until recently awash with corruption under President Daniel Arap Moi, money entrusted to government was money thrown away.
Yet oddly and inconsistently, Ms Short did see a role for private companies in the business of pulling countries out of poverty. She had put a great deal of thought and analysis into the eradication of poverty. There she was strong for the marketplace.
What now matters most is how far, with Ms Short and her entrenched views gone, the department under Baroness Amos will change its relationships with NGOs. These should be judged not, as the department under Ms Short has tended to judge them, by size, but also by performance.
Some of the middle-ranking organizations, according to my observations in different parts of the world, do an excellent job. Furthermore, they do what no one else is trying to do. Small is sometimes beautiful. They deserve better than to be cold-shouldered or left to scratch for buried treasure in Brussels.
Will there be a change here' It is difficult to read the true mind of officials on this, for Ms Short was something of a bully. Many ministers are accused of being run by their department officials. That is not a charge that can be laid against this departed minister.
I have witnessed one or two of her run-ins with them. There was no doubting who held the whip hand.
There certainly ought to be a change, and for at least one good reason. As this newspaper has learnt through its successive Christmas appeals, the charitable impulse runs exceptionally deep in this country. There is a strong desire among all ages to do more for the innocent victims of rotten government, particularly in Africa.
That impulse springs from the heart of this country, superficially dedicated to shopping sprees, but far more conscious than most countries in western Europe of the plight of those living in countries such as Sudan, Angola, and Sierra Leone, where everyone’s future, down to the newest-born baby, is clouded by incessant conflict.
Perhaps it has something to do with our responsibilities when we had an empire. But this is a better country because it has an instinctive desire to reach out to “those who to the harvest home would come, but expect no harvest and possess no home”. International development policy under any dispensation has to foster that spirit, not reject it.