UK Aid in the Spotlight: Matthew Rycroft at the Cambridge Union

Felicity Garvey 3 February 2019
Image Credit: Flickr, DFID/Michael Hughes

“British aid does work. It’s not perfect, but it’s my job to get it better and better.”

So Matthew Rycroft told the Union during Thursday’s debate. Mr Rycroft is one of the UK’s top diplomats, whose career was springboarded by entering the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) fast stream in 1989. By 2002, he was appointed to the role of Private Secretary for Foreign Affairs to Tony Blair; a year later, he was awarded a CBE. Regarding his varied career with the Civil Service, he noted that “you get used to working on the toughest issues”. His current role is that of Permanent Secretary at the Department for International Development (DFID) – the branch of the UK Government that is responsible for administering overseas aid. “DFID prides itself on thinking long-term,” he explained in an interview with The Cambridge Student following the debate. “Climate change, preventing conflict, tackling poor governance” are just some of DFID’s areas of focus. “Even the proposition tonight didn’t try to criticise the humanitarian work, because it’s very popular…but actually, the long term development stuff is actually much more important in making a sustainable difference.”

The motion up for debate was ‘This House Believes British Aid Isn’t Working’, and both proposition and opposition raised compelling arguments. Shaista Aziz and Dr Jason Hickel were guest speakers for the proposition, while Dr Tamsyn Barton and Matthew Rycroft were for the opposition; the debate was opened and closed by passionate student speakers on each side. Difficult issues were raised by the proposition, including the UK’s colonial and neo-colonial history in the countries it ‘aids’. Despite the challenge, the opposition achieved a close but hard won victory, with a majority of only 5.5% of the vote over the proposition. During the debate, Mr Rycroft advocated for UK aid, citing global statistics of reductions in extreme poverty. “There are not many issues where there is a genuine global consensus … Everyone that is rich enough to contribute a bit to those less fortunate than ourselves should be working towards a single framework – and the purpose of that single framework is ending extreme poverty.” He points out that within that global action, the UK is a world leader. “We are good at aid. We are a development superpower in this country. Not that many people know that, and I would love to change that.” Rycroft says, adding that, “just because it is difficult … doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. By definition it’s difficult – if it wasn’t difficult, it wouldn’t be aid.”

Matthew Rycroft is no stranger to the difficulties of international cooperation, having been President of the UN Security Council twice in his capacity as UK Permanent Representative to the UN. He spoke of the difficulties of that role, particularly the issues in Syria. “We were divided as a Security Council… The international system that had been set up to help prevent conflict and to maintain peace and security was just stuck, failing to do its job. That was a difficult time.” There were, however, some clear highlights for Rycroft. “I was really proud of the role the UK played in formulating the Sustainable Development Goals. I think it was the best thing the UN agreed in my time. And now it is the framework for all international development…so we are now using it as our framework.” Mr. Rycroft seems to be enjoying his shift in role from creator with the UN to enactor with DFID. He does note, however that “it is quite a broad framework… it would have been better if it was even sharper, even crisper and it sort of narrowed things down and helped us prioritise.” The debate concluded that this house believes British Aid is working, but there still seems to be some way to go.

One such issue that was discussed was the allegations of abuse that were brought to the fore by the Oxfam scandal, where evidence revealed that Oxfam workers had sexually exploited victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Shaista Aziz, with the proposition, spoke passionately of the need for an intersectional feminist approach to aid policy, highlighting how aid often hurts women more than it helps them. When the issue, and its implications for the sector, was put to Rycroft following the debate, he said that “the way to recover is to recognise the scale of the challenge, and to radically transform how we do things”. He went on to detail some of the actions taken since the Oxfam revelations last year – from national safeguarding measures to international campaigning. “Everyone who is involved in British aid spending has come together and we’ve had two summits last year – the second one set out these standards and guidelines that the whole sector is going to have to meet… I think there is the will to turn this around. It has been so bad, the silver lining – if there is one – is that the black cloud has been so black that people have realised they have to change tack.”

It is not just hindsight leading to significant changes in the UK aid sector, but also looking to the future in terms of Brexit. “ECHO (The European Commission’s department for overseas aid) has said that if there is no deal then they won’t guarantee continued funding to British-based organisations, NGOs and so on. DFID has said that we will make up whatever shortfall they have.” The uncertainty surrounding Brexit is only complicating the issue. “We are reaching out to all of the British institutions to make sure that their own planning for a no-deal Brexit, which could of course happen, is in good shape. Our own is – to such an extent that actually we have offered up to 600 to go and help other parts of the British government to help with their no-deal planning.”

Despite the clear issues this presents, however, Mr Rycroft also sees Britain’s changing global position as an opportunity. “I think we face a choice as a country, and we should concentrate on the things that we’re good at – and we’re really good at international development. I really hope that more people in this country understand the good that it is doing, around the world and for our own country. It really is a win-win – it’s a win for the developing world, but it’s a win for us as well, because it’s part of our own standing in the world. But it’s a choice… and I hope we don’t choose to draw back and look inwards, I think we need to be genuinely global as a country: I think that’s good for us and good for the world.”