Only a few days ago Nick Clegg lectured the UN about honouring development aid commitments and emphasized how the British government would be setting an example in that regard. From today’s FT we learn that the DFID is now formally shoring up the British Council, because the FCO can no longer afford it. The Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell may be at pains to say that his department is only paying for projects which meet OECD aid requirements, but genuine aid organisations such as Oxfam are evidently beginning to worry that money is being diverted.
They are right to worry. We have referred before to the vapid walls that are supposed to separate grant money from the organisation’s commercial activities. Would the British Council have a cat in hell’s chance of getting subscribers for its international programmes without the public money that pays for its international presence? Would it get sponsorship from Hilton, Shell, Deutsche Bank, Renault and Air India if it couldn’t offer privileged access to Britain’s diplomatic network? Would it be able to keep going without the juicy closed contracts from an array of government departments? Could the British Council operate IELTS in China without diplomatic cover, and without employing examiners on visitor visas? Could it have got us into a diplomatic mess with the Russians if its status as a business had been established rather than as an extension of our diplomatic network? Would it have a contract to teach English at Libyan universities if a) it had not used public money to pay for Libyan officials to attend its own courses, and b) if the contract had been put to competitive tender?
The British Council is one big political and financial mush – hopelessly inefficient, massively subsidised, self-serving, over-privileged and pretty much out of control. Finding another £40 million (or any other sum) for it from DFID is a thoroughly retrograde step. And when Britain lectures others about development budgets, what is said should be taken with more than a pinch of salt. The government has apparently redefined what it means by ring-fencing, and whatever it says it looks as though the British Council will get more of our money while causes that might be worthy of our support will get less.