When people think back to thirteen year old reign of the UK’s Labour Party, many would remember Tony Blair’s oratorical skills, John Prescott’s humour and Gordon Brown’s rise to power. Others would remember then for raising the UK’s debt, Blair being the “poodle” of Bush and other not so memorable issues. Very few people would remember however, something that New Labour built—the Department for International Development (DFID—commonly pronounced as dif-fid).
It is a unique department having two main offices instead of one like so many other UK ministries—one in London and a another in East Kilbride, Glasgow . During the Thatcher years, UK aid was the very least of the UK’s concerns. With the entry of New Labour in 1997, international development and aid was suddenly a huge priority for the left-centre government, so much that the small unit in the FCO became an official department with a Cabinet Minister—then Clare Short—in charge. This meant that UK aid would be properly debated and monitored by the UK parliament (See Owen Barder’s article for a greater analysis on DFID’s rise).
With it creation and under Clare Short’s leadership, UK aid was dramatically transformed. Instead of decades old ideas of development, DFID launched a White Paper in 1997, directing the aim of UK aid to be towards reducing global poverty. This was solidified with the International Development Act in 2002, where all UK aid was united (ie. not attached to UK commercial deals or foreign policy) . Further White Papers included one in 2000 which focused on how developing countries could harness the effects of globalisation. The 2006 White Paper address the theme of governance while the latest in 2009 touched on emerging issues such as fragile states and climate change.
Beyond policy prescriptions, DFID’s field work has been hailed as one of the best bilateral donors in terms of field operations. They’ve moved away from the World Bank orthodoxy and addressed poverty through a multidimensional perspective. With the International Development Act, British aid was spent more wisely and targeted at the poor in developing countries. DFID aid has assisted over 2.5 million people with clean sanitation and continues to draw several million individuals out of poverty annually.
DFID however does have its weakness. Not all of its aid has been properly spent even if the aid recipient is not corrupt. While it has attempted to address poverty, its policies have continued to contain elements of neo-liberalism, starting with the issues in the 2000 White Paper. While praised as a leading bilateral donor, its management has still been highly bureaucratic.
Labour’s “monopoly” over DFID came to an end in May 2010 and the Conservatives now have control . Andrew Mitchell, the present DFID Minister, is in with an aim to shake up DFID. There will be a greater focus on results-based aid, adopting http://www.cgdev.org/section/initiatives/_active/codaid (a new approach to foreign aid). There will be no more aid to China and Russia, and possibly to India as these are middle income states. DFID will be more aligned with other departments such as the FCO and MOD in states
All’s well but such changes have been questioned. The poor are the poor irrespective of which country they are in. Drawing DFID into quasi-foreign policy would contravene the International Development Act. With less than five years to the Millennium Development Goals, NGOs, development practitioners, and others will be watch how Mitchell and the Conservatives will direct this http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/49/20/45519815.pdf (OECD praised) donor in the drive towards fighting global poverty.
 I’m not sure if this is the only UK ministry/cabinet-level department to have an office outside London; please inform me if this is not a unique case.
 While UK aid has been untied as opposed to say US aid, in reality, aid always comes with some sort of conditions. Good governance, human rights, women’s rights etc etc
 Although there is a coalition government in the UK between the Lib-Dems and the Conservatives, there are no Lib-Dem Ministers in DFID
Author’s Disclaimer: I have no affiliation to any UK political party.
Author’s note: This was originally posted on Global Politics Magazine, the very first, not the one owned by rude Miles.