Outside Edge: DfID betrays its own purpose

Tash Shifrin, a specialist social affairs writer

DfID has only a modest budget, but its expenditure raises serious questions about its priorities, says Tash Shifrin.

"The Ministry of Defence has been caught with its fingers in the tsunami aid pot." So said Scottish National Party MP Angus Robertson last week, after his parliamentary questions revealed that the MoD was sending a bill to the Department for International Development for transporting tsunami aid.

You can understand his anger. People in Britain stumped up more than £250m to help victims of the tsunami disaster. Yet this spontaneous generosity was not matched by ministers. Tony Blair had to be shamed and chivvied into raising the Government's contribution to the relief effort from a miserly initial amount of £1m.

Now it turns out that two-and-a-half times that sum is going not to the needy and desperate, but straight from DfID to the armed forces.

SNP leader Alex Salmond will not be the only one to feel that defence secretary Geoff Hoon should be "hanging his head in shame" at the way the forces promoted their tsunami work as a mission of mercy.

The MoD is not exactly skint, either. Its budget of around £25bn compares healthily with DfID's modest £3.8bn. You would think it could afford to help out. Indeed, you might even consider the delivery of aid to be more worthwhile than the armed forces' usual job of killing people.

This, then, might seem a good reason to be angry. But let's not overreact - let's keep things in perspective.

After all, DfID's handout to the MoD is dwarfed by the huge amounts of cash it dishes out to management consultants. The World Development Movement pointed out last week that two firms alone have been given a total of £37m to push privatisation in developing countries since Labour came to power.

The fact that one of these is the contractual arm of the deeply right-wing, free-market think tank the Adam Smith Institute does not make the story any more edifying.

The development campaigners noted that DfID spent £2.8m - more than the MoD money - facilitating water privatisation in Ghana alone, and in the face of local resistance.

Privatisation is not exactly popular in Britain - witness the continuing high level of support for renationalising the railways. Foisting the policy on other countries is spectacularly arrogant.

Time to question DfID's priorities, perhaps? But before we do that, let's rehearse the figures once more. In ascending order, here they are: paying the MoD's tsunami bill, £2.5m; helping to sell off Ghana's water, £2.8m; feeding the privatisation consultants and think tank policy wonks, £37m; total DfID budget, £3.8bn.

The total is less than the £5bn so far set aside by Gordon Brown for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps it is time to question the priorities of the Government as a whole.

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