Priti Patel walks UK aid budget tightrope

Priti Patel in Kenya

Priti Patel is standing in the control tower of Mombasa port on the east coast of Kenya. Outside the windows she has a bird's eye view of the sprawling seaway, gateway for much of east Africa's trade.

And the international development secretary is doing something that belies her reputation: she is nodding approvingly as she hears how British taxpayers' money is being spent helping a foreign country boost its economy.

For this is the kind of aid that Ms Patel likes: bilateral, targeted and above all, easily measurable.

You can count the freshly tarmaced roads, the newly built quays, the brand new scanners that her department are paying for to make it easier for goods to flow in and out of this port.

And the aim is clear: to help support Kenya's economic development so that one day it can alleviate its own poverty without outside help.

Yet there is another agenda here too. And it is very explicit. Ms Patel wants to use Britain's development muscle more explicitly in the UK's national interest.

So she wants to use aid to try to slow the flow of African migrants to Europe. She wants to use aid to leverage post-Brexit trade deals and butter up potential allies in the World Trade Organization.

And she wants British aid to be used specifically to foster stability and security where it can to stop bad people ending up on Britain's streets.

Longstanding critic

On one level this is a continuation of David Cameron's aid strategy that he published last year, committing to ensure that half of Britain's £12bn aid budget is spent on fragile states.

On another level, it reflects Theresa May's foreign policy priorities to focus on Britain's domestic national interests. But it also reflects Ms Patel's own agenda.

She is a longstanding critic of parts of Britain's aid budget. In the last Parliament she suggested that the Department for International Development should be abolished and subsumed into a new trade department.

In the months since her appointment, she has told the Daily Mail and its weekend sister the Mail on Sunday about how she is planning to ferret out the waste in the system that infuriates her so much.

In Kenya, she told me of her plans to cut multilateral aid projects if they did not achieve what they promised.

But in Parliament and in private, Ms Patel has been walking a less controversial, less dogmatic path. MPs and aid experts say she is listening and learning.

As we toured Kenya over the last few days, I watched as she took diligent notes during meetings and was genuinely moved and excited by the various aid projects she was visiting.

The aid professionals she met in Nairobi were curious to get to know a minister whose parents were refugees themselves from east Africa in the 1970s.

There was no hostility among those I spoke to, just an interest to see how they could help shape the thinking of a woman whose decisions will affect their lives.

Harder edge

For Priti Patel is walking a tightrope. On one side, she is there to defend Britain's commitment to spend 0.7% of its national income on development aid.

This has become a totem of the government's post-Brexit commitment to stay engaged with the world. When the prime minister speaks about what the Foreign Office rather clumsily calls "hashtag global Britain" she often lists the 0.7% figure before Britain's membership of Nato, the UN Security Council and the Commonwealth.

When a botched media briefing led to headlines recently suggesting a weakening of this commitment, Ms Patel was quickly out of the blocks to correct the misunderstanding.

And yet on the other hand, the prime minister was fully aware of Ms Patel's past critiques of the aid budget when she appointed her to the post.

The government wants to bring a harder edge to its aid spending, ensuring more punch for its pound. And the forthcoming reviews of both the multilateral and bilateral spending programmes are expected to be robust, unnerving non-governmental organisations and charities whose lifeblood they are.

The political risk for Ms Patel is that she falls between the two stools. She might keep railing at the undeniable waste that exists in some aid organisations.

But the international rules defining aid spending, the 0.7% spending commitment and the UK law banning any direct link between aid and trade may tie her hands and make genuine change hard to achieve.

Like many international development secretaries before her, she might go a touch native and lose her reforming zeal.

And if that happened, the Daily Mail may rescind its declaration of "victory over aid waste" and turn its fire on Ms Patel instead.

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