Overseas aid and military spending, Round Two

The argument about whether overseas aid money can be spent on the military seems to be kicking off again. Indeed, it seems not only to have started up but to be institutionalised in negotiations between the UK Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development.

Cuts and a ring fence

OK, the MoD and DFID are talking to each other in ‘a working group of officials and military personnel’ but insiders have apparently described the two sides as miles apart, which is the language used for negotiations between adversaries.

With the MoD under enormous budget pressure and overseas aid ring fenced against cuts, and with the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid set to be fulfilled this year while the military continue to downsize, it’s hardly surprising that a spat is unfolding within Whitehall. And in politics, this is also a divisive issue within the coalition, with many Conservatives opposing the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for 0.7, as I’ve previously noted. And, of course, the NGOs are circling their wagons, insisting that every penny of ODA is spent on helping the world’s poor.

the rules

Before the heat gets the way in the light, we could try for a little clarity. There are guidelines, agreed by the OECD Development Assistance Committee, by which the government is bound, as it has repeatedly stated. They’re called guidelines but regard them as rules.

The most relevant bits say as follows:

  • Military aid: No military equipment or services are reportable as ODA.  Anti-terrorism activities are also excluded.  However, the cost of using donors’ armed forces to deliver humanitarian aid is eligible.
  • Peacekeeping: Most peacekeeping expenditures are excluded in line with the exclusion of military costs.  However, some closely-defined developmentally relevant activities within peacekeeping operations are included.

Are we clear? Collapsing the text a bit: “No military services” may be paid for by ODA except “using donors’ armed forces to deliver humanitarian aid.”

So if one part of the UK government wants to charge another part for flying in aid in the wake of an earthquake or in the midst of a war, it may do, and it may count that internal transfer as part of ODA.  Further, some “Closely defined developmentally relevant activities” are legitimately part of ODA, such as the role military personnel take in security sector reform or in disarming and demobilising former combatants after civil war.

However, broader peacekeeping and conflict prevention tasks employing the armed forces are not chargeable as ODA.

Trying it on

The truth is that the military are not going to find many of their activities – and none of the really big ticket items – that can be covered by ODA while sticking to the rules. The charge that rather desperately, under heavy financial pressure, and used to more lavish treatment under the previous Labour government, the MoD is casting around for ways of blunting the next cuts and, in that mood, is trying it on with the aid budget, as senior Lib Dem Sir Menzies Campbell MP has said, sounds just about on the mark

Getting the aid through, yes. Some other very specific activities, yes. For the rest, no.

There is a proposal that DFID should pre-pay for flights on military aircraft. That probably won’t wash either – or would only stand a chance of washing if the MoD would give back unused cash far enough before the end of the financial year for it to be recycled through the aid budget. To make this manoeuvre possible, the extra accounting measures will probably cost so much to get straight that you might as well not bother with the side-step in the first place. Far easier, I would have thought, just to pay when you go. And if the MoD response is that then they might not have the aircraft and aircrew available, DFID or the aid NGOs would have to charter flights from somewhere else.

Call it off

The MoD and a number of Conservative politicians have eyed the DFID budget (which at about £11 billion is about a quarter of the MoD’s £46 billion this year and £44 billion next year) and have raised expectations among aid sceptics that the money could fund activities they find more congenial.

Frankly, they have raised the stakes over a prize that – unless rules are actually broken – will turn out to be really rather small. However much the MoD manages to charge for flights, it’s not going to solve their budget problems.

Development Secretary Justine Greening and her officials can make sympathetic and cooperative noises but, again on condition rules are respected, they neither need nor can do much to help. So the engine of debate will roar on but the gears of policy won’t be engaged.

In the course of it, as generals fall into long-outdated stereotypical mode and harrumph and snort about humanitarian aid, the MoD risks making itself look somewhere between ridiculous and callous, chasing hard after not very much at the expense of doing good. My advice: call it off. Now.


NB: This article was edited after being first posted, to correct some typos and to source and make more accurate the information on the relative size of DFID and MoD budgets. DS

One thought on “Overseas aid and military spending, Round Two

  1. Well argued. But it could also be argued that it is mistaken to set a target for development assistance and ring-fence it, while pillaging the MoD’s budget. If military help is need for peacekeeping or some such, the MoD should be able to find the money. But a government must also be able to switch funds between all budgets.
    The MOD’s efforts to get other departments to pay its bills are sometimes tragic as well as ludicrous. For years they wanted to remove the old ice patrol ship HMS Endurance from the South Atlantic. They argued that if the FCO wanted to keep it as an earnest of British resolve to defend the Falkalnds, they should pay. The FCO couldn’t and wouldn’t. The 1981 Defence Review made clear the ship would be de-commissioned. and, predictably, the Argentinians misread the signal and invade the islands the following year.

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