Governmental bureaucracies are latent zombies — they are hard to kill. And yet, new British Prime Minister Theresa May has apparently decided to try precisely that when it comes to DFID, Great Britain’s development ministry. By appointing Priti Patel, formerly a lobbying executive defending tobacco and alcohol producers against domestic and global regulation, May has effectively put the death knell into what used to be one of the Labour government’s international crown jewels. Not only does Patel have a remarkable record on fighting against public health and worker’s rights; in 2013 she also urged for DFID–the same ministry she now heads–to be, as The Independent put it, “scrapped and replaced”. True to neoliberal dogma (although she probably prefers the label “libertarian”), she argued that instead of funding programs designed to decrease vulnerabilities among the poorest, it would be possible to “bring more prosperity to the developing world and enable greater wealth transfers to be made from the UK by fostering greater trade and private sector investment opportunities.”
The decision to appoint an institutional undertaker to dismantle or at least paralyze a government’s international development architecture is not without European precedent. Back in 2009, German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked libertarian Dirk Niebel to lead Germany’s development ministry. His record at the BMZ’s helm does not bode well for those who care about DFID. Much like Patel in 2013, he endorsed a trade-focused agenda while cutting programs for the social sector, as well as scattering BMZ’s trademark advocacy on gender equality. In one instance he personally demonstrated his belief in free trade by smuggling an Afghan rug back into Germany and getting fined for evasion of customs duties. Meanwhile, Niebel developed a reputation for turning the BMZ into a nepotistic cesspool to reward old friends from the libertarian party with senior posts and pension benefits irrespective of substantive experience.
DFID’s staff are facing tough times under Patel’s leadership. The best-case scenario, it seems, could be that she quickly turns into another Niebel, realizing that leveraging her ministry’s resources for her personal network carries greater potential to serve her political career in the long run. The worst case is that Patel is still serious about abolishing DFID or–much like the conservative government in Canada–folding it into a super-ministry focusing on trade and investment instead of human development. Unlike in Germany, where Niebel was frequently put in his place by then-Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Patel is dealing with a Foreign Office led by Boris Johnson. Although the latter’s foreign policy agenda is yet unknown, his flamboyant elitism and recurrent racism suggest that helping the poor won’t receive much political attention from Whitehall during the years to come, neither in Britain nor abroad.