Priti Patel in Israel: a funny way to bring accountability to aid spending

Bibi! Fancy seeing you here! EPA/Will Oliver

In yet another difficult moment for the British government, Priti Patel, the secretary of state for international development, has been found to have conducted secret meetings with government officials while on a private holiday in Israel. This even included an encounter with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Some of these discussions reportedly centred on Britain providing financial support to humanitarian operations of the Israeli army in the Golan Heights. Patel has received heavy criticism for her actions, and has since issued an apology. But the incident raises questions about her suitability for this role.

From DfID sceptic to defender

Patel, a leading figure of the Brexit campaign, arrived to the Department for International Development (DfID) in July 2016. She had a reputation as a strong sceptic of foreign aid. Back in 2013, she even called for DfID to be abolished. Colleagues and I have argued that Patel represents a vision for international development that puts trade interests at the fore.

DfID is one of the world’s largest aid agencies and has an excellent reputation for being a transparent and progressive aid provider. However, it has been under seige since 2015, when the government enshrined in law the target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid. So while most other government departments have been facing significant cutbacks, DfID has been expanding.

Perhaps realising the difficulty of changing the culture of a large organisation, or perhaps “going native” by gaining a deeper appreciation of DfID’s work, Patel has made several U-turns on her previous positions. She has emerged as a defender of DfID, as well as the global role and influence that development aid allows for the UK. In October, she came out strongly against rumours of the Foreign Office taking over DfID’s budget.

Theresa May has called for the ministerial code to be tightened up after the revelations about Patel. PA

Patel’s secret Israeli negotiations are in stark contrast to the image she has been painting of herself, as well as the culture of transparency at DfID. She has promoted an ethical code to ensure that “fat cats”, understood as companies, charities and international organisations engaged in implementing UK-funded aid projects, stop reaping excessive profits. Patel has said that she is a “no-bullshit person” when it comes to accountability and getting results. Inflated contracts and high expert fees have indeed been seen by many as problems, and an emphasis on better value for money and greater transparency at DfID have been welcome.

It’s difficult to square carrying out negotiations in secret with this emphasis on transparency. What’s more, Patel, who is a known supporter of Israel, seems to have been using her position as the international development secretary to promote her own agenda.

Nonetheless, she may well emerge from the scandal untarnished. After the resignation of Michael Fallon as defence secretary, Prime Minister Theresa May is eager to avoid any more changes in her government which would imply her own weakness. To some, especially on the right wing, Patel may even be able to paint a picture of herself as a maverick promoter of British interests within May’s indecisive government.

Still, Patel’s actions may have long reaching consequences. In the Arab world, and more broadly among Muslim countries, this incident will not be helpful. While governments are likely to turn a blind eye as long as UK aid keeps flowing, the secret negotiations will fuel conspiracy theories about Western support to Israel. Extremists will be more than happy to promote these.

The scandal also raises questions about the competence and credibility of the British government and its members. If what we know about Patel’s negotiations are true, she made promises that Britain couldn’t have delivered anyway. Israel is a rich country and so not eligible for aid from DfID. Nor does Britain even acknowledge Israel’s presence in the Golan Heights – so it can’t support any actions there. The otherwise welcome initiatives against “fat cats” will also suffer if the very minister initiating them herself engages in ethically dubious actions.