One problem faced by the then Secretary of State Hilary Benn and his officials at DfID, and a partial explanation for their moral evasion, was simply that the department is under political pressure to spend its budget each year. "It's supply side pressure," in Clay's words. "Most departments have the Treasury breathing down their necks to spend less. DfID is unique in that it is required to spend more, and farther away from scrutiny than any other department." As the Africa expert Michela Wrong points out, this places DfID in a difficult — indeed, morally absurd — position, since if even relatively well-governed African countries like Kenya are excluded from the list of recipients on the ground of political corruption, the UK would be in danger of having nobody to give its money to at all.
Another factor weighing on the minds of DfID officials is the rising influence of China, which has increased its trade with Africa 15-fold since 2000, and was described in a leaked US diplomatic cable in 2010 as "a pernicious economic competitor with no morals". China's willingness to deal with literally anyone — even Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan — is a serious deterrent to anyone seeking to raise standards of governance in Britain's aid partners. If the British refuse aid to Kenya because of concerns over the abuse of funds, so the argument goes, China is more than willing to take Britain's place, no questions asked. The essential wisdom of this was demonstrated when Britain's High Commissioner to Malawi was expelled from the country in 2011 for describing President Bingu wa Mutharika as "ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism". By contrast, Mutharika boasted that China had given Malawi aid with no strings attached.
This is a strong argument, but it is ironic that DfID officials have been advancing it. When Tony Blair's government separated DfID from the Foreign Office in 1997, assigning the new department its own budget, the move was explained as a way of ensuring that Britain's aid would not be given or withheld for reasons of national interest as determined by the Foreign Office. Yet in the Githongo affair, DfID found itself arguing that British aid must be continued regardless of the moral case against, simply in order to preempt Chinese influence. By contrast, some Foreign Office officials courageously argued that Britain should do the right thing and back the whistleblower, regardless of the short-term impact on Britain's influence.
Justine Greening, who took over from Andrew Mitchell as Secretary of State for International Development in the September reshuffle, is reported to have been reluctant to take on her new portfolio. If she feels short of allies in Whitehall, perhaps she should pick up the phone and talk to Andrew Mwenda, who encouraged her predecessor to cut Britain's aid. "As Africans," Mwenda wrote, "we urge the generous-spirited British to reconsider an aid programme they can ill afford, and which we do not want or need."
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