The international development secretary has received a “major rap over the knuckles” for trying to cut British funding to UN bodies, despite repeated calls for them to stop wasting taxpayer cash.
Priti Patel last month vowed to cut British funding to NGOs found to be frittering away tax money on pointless projects, as a way of sending a strong message to those organisations that they needed to step up their game.
Among the organisations on her radar were the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), which has ignored repeated warnings from the British government over the way it spends Britain’s £15m contribution a year, and the World Health Organization.
But Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is said to have objected, worried that withdrawing from the programmes would make Britain look isolationist. The prime minister, Theresa May, reportedly took his side, chastising Patel for her announcement.
A senior government figure told The Sun: “Priti is adamant we have to get tough with bodies like UNESCO and that means walking away from them very publicly.
“Boris and the Foreign Office think it’s not that simple and it would hurt Britain’s international reputation.
“No10 went crazy when they found out, because Theresa’s priority is maintaining good relations with other world leaders to get a good Brexit deal.
“So Priti got a major rap over the knuckles and is smarting about it.”
In an interview in late October Patel laid out her vision for ensuring that the approximately £4.5 billion spent by Britain on foreign aid each year is put to good use, not only through ensuring that it profoundly alters the lives of those helped, but also in terms of fostering good will towards Britain through soft diplomacy.
Her department is set to release a Multilateral Aid Review within the next few weeks detailing the way large agencies use aid money – and sometimes fail to get good value for the cash.
“When the Multilateral Aid Review comes out, it will cover the whole spectrum of organisations,” Patel said.
“We will call out those institutions that are not performing for our taxpayers and are failing the people that they should be there supporting.
“These organisations are there for their beneficiaries – not for their own self-serving interests.
“When we see waste and inefficiency and when we see UK taxpayers’ money being used in completely the wrong way, we will call them out and we will challenge them.”
But Patel may not see her ambitions fully realised if the government chooses to prioritise keeping on the right side of international bodies over a sea-change in British aid spending.
A No. 10 source told The Sun: “UNESCO is a valuable and respected institution. We have no plans to change our relationship with it.”
The row comes as the U.S. cuts its funding to UNESCO entirely, following a decision by the Paris-based body to recognise Palestine as an independent country and admit it as a member. The American federal government is legally required to stop paying out to any UN agency that recognises the territory as a separate state.