A new debate is heating up in Britain about overseas development assistance – ODA. To foreign observers struck by how international generosity became a cross-party consensus here, it may come as something of a surprise that development aid is under pressure. But it is real and should be heeded for well-honed arguments are needed.
Government policy unchanged
The first thing to say, though, is that there is no change in government policy. A commitment to increasing ODA to 0.7 per cent of GDP is written into the coalition agreement, was recently reaffirmed by Chancellor George Osborne and could not be unilaterally jettisoned without a much bigger political storm – a coalition-breaking one in all likelihood, in which ODA would only be minor issue – than we’re now seeing. Further, the commitment was not a matter of the Conservatives conceding to a Liberal-Democrat position when the coalition was formed in May 2010.The 0.7 per cent target was in the election manifestos of Conservatives, Lib-Dems and Labour alike.
However, there has been consistent unease among many Conservative MPs and activists about ODA. Supporting 0.7 per cent was part of the “detoxification” of the Conservatives when David Cameron became leader, on a par with going green and promising to protect the National Health Service (“Comments” are open below for any views on those other two elements of political de-tox).
In that sense, agreeing to increase ODA was a compromise for many Conservatives, but one made within the party between themselves and the pragmatists. Or, seen another way, it was a compromise between many Conservatives and majority opinion.
Ah yes – the electorate, which naturally supported ODA when the mood was upbeat, the cause was fashionable and the economic going was good back in 2004, 5 and 6. And which has equally naturally become rather more sceptical when the economy stops going and public spending gets cut.
But the truth is that public support for increasing development aid has always been brittle – supported by many but a high priority for very few.
But the situation is different
Despite austerity measures the national budget deficit currently appears certain to overshoot the government’s target for the 2012/13 financial year and the deficit-cutting programme long-term is behind schedule. For how much longer than the original “by 2015” austerity measures will persist is now subject to argument and debate all round, as is the scale of additional cuts – whether an extra £10 billion or 25 or more. Of public spending cuts so far announced, not quite 20 per cent will have been implemented by the end of the 2012/13 financial year. And in 2010 the government delayed increases in ODA for introduction from 2012 or 2013 on.
This means that ODA is supposed to be increasing again as other budgets receive additional cuts . The government is still insisting that ODA is ring-fenced but it is hardly surprising that it is not being taken at its word.
Especially, it’s not surprising when, as part of the Prime Minister’s recent reshuffle of cabinet posts, the Secretary of State for International Development who is closely associated with the 0.7 per cent target shifts sideways to be government Chief Whip. (NB for international readers: in his new post, Andrew Mitchell is under pressure and resignation is not out of the question because he lost his temper at a policeman at the gate to Downing Street. “Gategate” as it’s being called is a political crisis-ette with legs and, sadly, could bring him down.)
The new Secretary for Development is Justine Greening, Transport Minister until the reshuffle, and well known for opposing a third runway at Heathrow Airport, about which another political squall is blowing, which is probably why she was shifted.
Within her first week in office, however, Justine Greening publicly reaffirmed the commitment to the 0.7 per cent target. In other words, the policy hasn’t changed. So what’s the fuss?
This is not an issue that’s going to go away. Less than a week after Greening had followed Osborne in reaffirming 0.7, one of the shrewdest Conservative politicians, former Deputy Party Chairman Lord Ashcroft got things going with an attack on the ‘golden taps’ of aid. In the reshuffle that brought in Greening, Ashcroft was appointed as government adviser. This is not an attack from the far margins of conservatism.
The same day and in the same newspaper, the amount of money paid to consultancy companies by DFID came under attack. And then Justine Greening ordered a review of DFID’s spending on consultants.
It’s worth looking at the tone of the criticisms of aid. Partly it’s about waste, countries ‘flooded’ with our money; partly it’s the language of hand-outs and supporting the shiftless and undeserving; and partly it’s about the exploitation of the system – those who profit from it. But the articles and views I’ve been citing so far are as nothing compared to the bile that is visible if you track some of the comment threads on these articles.
Nobody who knows Britain well can doubt that there is something in all this, something that can very straightforwardly be tapped to shape the debate on international development.
And the deeper problem is, that nobody who knows international development assistance can honestly doubt that there are indeed problems in how it’s handled. Corruption is an easy argument to handle because everyone’s against it. But I find it hard to shrug off a critical case about the profits of the consultancy companies working on DFID (and other big aid agency) contracts when they and the bonuses that senior managers get rise beyond a certain, ill-defined but indignation-provoking level.
As with any system for handling large sums of money, with imperfect people in an imperfect world, mistake and worse do happen. The critics will always have some grist to their mill, some smoke for the gun.
Aid has its defenders and proponents too. The Labour development team can be relied on to defend 0.7 (even if, in their political heart of hearts, they’d probably not mind a broken promise with which to attack both parts of the coalition government). A good strong statement of the case on that side* came from the former First Minister of Scotland, Jack McConnell with plenty of detail and figures. But the backing for increasing ODA goes wider and veteran Conservative MP and former Chair of the Parliamentary International Development Committee, Tony Baldry, put a parallel case from his side of the aisle.
Simply put, both make the same twin-track case:
- It’s cheap (1.6% of government spending, says Baldry, or 40p per person per week, says McConnell) and, mistakes and corruption aside, and that should be dealt with firmly, it achieves impact and improves lives.
- It does good and is in the UK’s interest in a number of important ways.
True enough – but I continue to feel something more is necessary.
What works – and some questions
The good that foreign aid does is normally explained and justified by how it helps people – a humanitarian case. But it’s called development assistance for a reason: its aim is to assist development not just meet humanitarian need.
Of course it’s important that the advance of HIV/AIDS has been stopped and latest figures show the pandemic retreating. And critics of aid spending should answer the question, would you stop investing in that and in other health improvements in poor countries?
And of course it’s important that literacy levels are rising. And the critics of aid spending should be challenged on that as well. And on improving maternal health, and providing clean water supplies and sanitation, and reducing the incidence of extreme poverty.
But the key to development continues to be assuring the framework within which countries can develop and, thus, more people can thrive more. Too much effort and argument goes on the activities, with too much temptation to step in and substitute for the deficiencies and lack of capacity in poor countries, and too little goes on the difficult task of establishing a supportive framework of law, custom, infrastructure and capacity so countries increasingly do it themselves.
And that brings me to a familiar theme:
Not a single fragile state has achieved a single Millennium Development Goal. The choice is between keeping the work going on peace and governance so as to foster the conditions for social and economic development – or letting decline set in and anarchy rip in large parts of the world. That is the question that, above all others, should be put to the critics of aid spending (not the critics of inefficiency or corruption but the critics of spending as such).
Today 48% of the world’s population live in established democracies; five years back it was 43%. Would you stop spending on the hard slogging work that is extending the reach of democracy around the world?
In 1990 there were 50 armed conflicts and in 2010 there were 30. Do you want to stop the work of peacemaking, peacekeeping and above all for the long term, peacebuilding?
* By the way, can’t resist: check out the name of the blog-site on which Jack McConnell posted – you know you’ve arrived in the blogosphere when you can call yourself a Lord of the Blog.