Don’t allow DFID’s St Helena PR debacle to dilute foreign aid

With a £12.2 billion budget to work with the scope for carving out good news stories at the Department for International Development DFID should be like falling off a log.

Working with some of the world’s poorest countries, DFID is in the position to demonstrate just how willing Britain is prepared to put its money where its mouth is and drag some of the most disadvantaged people on the planet out of poverty for good.

Except it doesn’t. Instead, it is constantly fire fighting bad news with negative headlines about its activities appearing almost weekly.

Of any government department, it is the one that should filling media streams with tales of the UK being a beacon of hope for the so called ‘bottom billion’, the sorry souls across swathes of Africa and Asia forced to live on a dollar a day or less.

But instead, it seems almost programmed to hand out ammunition to those opposed to the government’s promise to spend 0.7% of gross national income on foreign aid.

Stories abound about the amount they pay external contractors to deliver their programmes such as Save the Children. It’s director, former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, receives a pay packet worth £246,750 a year. Or of gifting £5 million to the ‘Ethiopian Spice Girls’ to set up their own chat show.

This however, falls into insignificance when compared with DFID’s white elephant of a new airport on the remote South Atlantic overseas territory of St Helena.

An airport that cost £286 million and is completely unusable in its current form because of strong and unpredictable wind conditions.

According to MPs on the public accounts committee it was “staggering” that DFID had got to this position in the project without checking out wind conditions that Charles Darwin had observed as an issue when he visited the island way back in 1836.

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with decision-making process of government that no one is accepting responsibility. In fact, the man in charge, Mark Lowcock, DFIDs permanent secretary was given a knighthood in the New Year honours.

The airport was meant to open last May but so far no scheduled commercial flights have landed.

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St Helena is one of Britain’s most remote possessions currently taking several days to get to by boat from South Africa. A fragile economy supporting just 4,100 residents, the airport was meant to transform tourism on the island.

Indeed locals were encouraged by the authorities to start investing in tourism infrastructure to cope with the coming demand. Alas, so far DFID has not even identified the extent or cost of any work that could be done to remedy the situation or indeed if that is even feasible.

Now DFID is never going to convince those fundamentally opposed to the idea of spending vast amounts of money on improving the lives of people who don’t live in this country.

But this debacle does not help its cause in persuading anyone that spending money overseas as opposed to spending it on social care at home, for instance, is the right thing to do. There are some fundamental things wrong when such a large sum of money can be so dramatically squandered.

However, this must not be used as an excuse to cut back on the overwhelmingly positive things DFID does to help the world’s most vulnerable and powerless.

It may be bad PR in an organisation that should be overflowing with good news, but fundamentally the problem is bad decision making and mismanagement.

Only when the core problem of departmental ineptitude is sorted can it start looking at creative ways of getting news about the good work that is going on out, justifying the valuable work they do and convincing the doubters of the need for a strong aid budget.

Whether it is sending urgent aid to war torn Aleppo, getting renewable solar energy schemes up and running in Africa or giving female entrepreneurs in Afghanistan a helping hand. All of this cannot be allowed to be overshadowed by the incompetence of the few.

Any cut back will only harm those most in need, in need of access to clean water, to sustainable energy sources and education for all.