Last time the Conservatives were in government, there was not even a minister in cabinet with responsibility for international development. If only for that reason, Andrew Mitchell is a welcome break with tradition. Yesterday he promised a transparent, accountable and empowering aid agenda that he claimed was as new as his party's discovery of the importance of international development. This morning the prime minister himself is repeating the claim on these pages. They overstate their case.
But Mr Mitchell – who shadowed the job for over four years before sliding into the ministerial limo – knows that development objectives are hard to achieve. When, as we report today, the G8 club of rich countries looks ready to bury the Gleneagles targets, and aid itself is faced with an international barrage of criticism that questions its very existence, selling the moral imperative of aid to a sceptical party will be harder still.
The Cameron-Mitchell silver bullet is an independent watchdog and a "transparency guarantee" that will provide the information to allow taxpayers in Britain to monitor the UK's aid effectiveness. Rather like New Labour's approach to the public sector, this government believes the best way of protecting spending is to prove to taxpayers that it is money well spent. But measuring outcomes can result in a distorting bureaucracy that misses the complexity of a problem and delivers not so much results as unintended consequences. Meanwhile, from the UN downwards the aid sector has been pondering for some years the relationship between accountability and effectiveness. In this new atmosphere, agencies acknowledge that it does not take many bad people to subvert the best of efforts to do good.
Last month the defence secretary, Liam Fox, said British troops were not in Afghanistan "for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country". Yesterday Mr Mitchell appeared to suggest that they were. Straddling the awkward cleavage between development as a moral imperative and development as a tool of foreign policy is only going to become more difficult in the harsh wind of austerity. Other players in the development sector are watching to make sure that the commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on aid is not subverted by siphoning some off for projects that are less about ending poverty than promoting Britain's interests abroad. And yesterday's promise to observe the vague OECD criteria for what counts as aid spending is not reassuring. In opposition, the Tories used their conversion to the importance of aid as proof that they were nasty no more. It's a card that plays both ways.