I imagine that most of the Dfid alumni were there when we established Dfid. It will be 25 years in 2 years time. I still feel proud of what we achieved together.
The question of whether the Overseas Development Agency (ODA) should be a separate Ministry was a source of disagreement between the Tories and Labour, from Harold Wilson’s time onwards. Prior to the 1997 election, a Labour party working group proposed the establishment of a separate department headed by a Cabinet Minister. This was agreed without argument until we reached the six month period before the election, when the Opposition meet with each department to prepare for power. The Foreign Office was strongly opposed to Dfid independence and lobbied Robin Cook and Tony Blair accordingly. When I was appointed to the Shadow Development post – having been “demoted” from Transport – Blair asked me to consult and consider whether a separate department was a good idea. I therefore looked honestly at the precedents, particularly in the Scandinavian countries, which had tried all sorts of combinations. When I met with John Vereker, he was absolutely clear and firm; it was a good idea and the only way to make development thinking a central part of UK policy. I prepared a note for Tony but the election was coming close and he didn’t respond.
When the government was being formed there were rumours in the press that I would be dropped from the Cabinet and I missed the first few calls from number 10. And then I met with Tony and the establishment of Dfid was agreed. The Foreign Office were furious and briefed against us for months. They even vetoed me meeting with African heads of state in the margins of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Edinburgh and all efforts to overturn this silly decision came to nothing.
Many of you will remember how exciting were those early months. We made some organisational changes. We had a battle with the Treasury to hold onto the governorship of the World Bank, even though the Whitehall competence on the Bank was housed in ODA. Amongst other things, we established a section of the Department to lead on trade policy for development, which made the head of the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) apoplectic and we beefed up our capacity on environmental sustainability. On top of the organisational changes, we reviewed all aspects of departmental policy to give us a new clarity and radicalism. Gordon Brown had – unwisely- decided to stick to the previous Tory spending plans for the first 2 years. Paradoxically, this probably helped us. There was no new money so we had to refocus everything we did.
I had previously met Richard Jolly when he was still at UNICEF and he had pointed me to the DAC report Shaping the 21st Century published in May 1996. This looked at progress in development over the last 50 years and proposed building on what had been achieved but combining our efforts more ambitiously. The aim was to halve the proportion of people living in poverty; get all children into primary education; make measurable progress on gender equality and access to reproductive healthcare; and to reduce infant, child and maternal mortality. The report also proposed making mutual agreements with our development partners; improving coordination of assistance in support of locally owned development strategies; and a determination to achieve coherence between aid and other policies which impact developing countries.
When I met John Vereker for the first time and said I wanted these aims to be the core of our policy, he was delighted as he had been a member of the committee that produced the DAC report. Of course development is littered with fine declarations of policy but in this case we were determined to seriously implement these policies.
And so we had wonderful seminars on every area of our policy. I got a larger table for my office. All were invited to provide papers, then we read and discussed and thrashed out ideas that became our White Papers and various policy papers. At first I found officials to be timid in their proposals. I remember saying… ‘You have been protecting this torch of development against hostile forces for years. I respect you for that and for all your knowledge and expertise, but now we can be really ambitious. And we were, and our influence and sense of excitement spread through our programs and into the international development system. Eventually it even reached critical elements in the rest of Whitehall.
I remember Tony telling me after he had been travelling that he found constant references to Dfid’s achievements. I honestly think Dfid survived in the first place because Tony didn’t want to have another row with me at the beginning of the life of the government. He ended up being impressed by us as did Gordon Brown. And interestingly both, who started with little interest in development, beyond a general charitable motive, continued working on development after their retirement from government.