Magazine article The Spectator

Greening's Challenge

Magazine article The Spectator

Greening's Challenge

Article excerpt

Can the new Development Secretary convince Cameron to take down the aid 'ringfence'.

At first glance, it looked like very good news when David Cameron appointed Justine Greening as Secretary of State for International Development in his September 2012 reshuffle. Greening is an experienced accountant, an alumna of Price Waterhouse Cooper, GlaxoSmithKline and Centrica, with zero tolerance for waste.

She already proved herself an advocate of fiscal retrenchment in her first government post, as Economic Secretary to the Treasury, setting out the government's case with clarity and zest. 'There was a time when the Labour party had something relevant to say on the economy, ' she declared to the House of Commons. 'That time has now passed.'

So when she told last year's Tory party conference that she was going to examine her department's expenditure 'line by line', she deserved to be taken seriously - and after only a few months she proved to be a woman of her word.

First, to the consternation of many an NGO director, she reached an agreement with the Indian government to phase out Britain's aid programme there by 2015. A few weeks later, she suspended the UK's bilateral grants to the corrupt government of Uganda.

Then, in November, she announced that Britain is to withhold its bilateral aid to Rwanda, whose government (according to 'credible and compelling reports') has been supporting the M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

If she carries on like this, cutting aid to middle income countries, and ensuring that UK money does not end up in the Swiss bank accounts of African politicians or international arms dealers, Greening will deserve to be taken very seriously indeed.

Nevertheless, however stringent she is, Greening is up against a perhaps unsolvable problem - the one Jonathan Foreman identifies in this magazine. How can she save money overall when the coalition government has promised to increase expenditure on international development, apparently regardless of the consequences? Or to put the matter in Greening's own terms, what is the point of going through DFID expenditure line by line, when the bottom line must always, as a matter of policy, add up to 0.7 per cent of gross national income?

A month or so ago, I was asked to interview Justine Greening for The Spectator, and I assumed that I would be able to find out for myself how this fiscal hardliner feels about running the only department in Whitehall in which spending must always go up. But what with the snappy rebuff that my overtures provoked from her staff, and the unmistakable signs of evasion and delay which followed, I quickly got the impression that the minister wasn't particularly keen to talk. And this caginess increased my suspicion that, for all her energy and brains, Greening finds herself in an extremely awkward position.

Greening was reported to have reacted furiously when the Prime Minister offered to move her to DFID, letting him know in single syllables that she disapproves of ring-fencing the international aid budget. Officials deny this, but it makes sense. Greening can hardly have relished the prospect of handing out large sums of money in the middle of a protracted economic crisis to people who cannot vote in British elections.

It is not only that she must now justify the government's spending priorities to a cynical public - explaining, for example, why foreign aid is increasing when accident and emergency departments are being closed across the UK, and police and military manpower is being cut. …

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