Is foreign aid still a priority for this government?

Written by Martin Horwood and David Taylor on 30 November 2011 in Opinion
Martin Horwood MP and David Taylor discuss whether or not the UK is living up to its commitment on international development

This article appeared in the December issue of Total Politics

Ilyas Abdullahi, a two-year-old boy from Ayesha in Ethiopia, was brought by his mother to Save the Children UK's mobile health clinic suffering from vomiting, watery diarrhoea and loss of appetite. He was severely malnourished and weighed less than 8kg.

Save the Children staff provided free health care and treatment, and gave his mother high-energy peanut paste so that Ilyas could reach a healthy weight of 9.8kg and then continue to have a nutritional diet at home.

The government began funding this project in April. It's just part of a £127m response to the emergency in East Africa that should benefit a staggering three million people, including thousands of refugees from war-torn Somalia. 

That, in turn, is just part of this government's unprecedented commitment to the world's poor this year, most of which focuses not on emergencies but on long-term, sustainable development. It takes real political guts to increase spending overseas at a time of desperate cost-cutting but the coalition is doing it, from £6.6bn in Labour's last full year in power to a planned £8bn this year.

And, as promised in the coalition agreement, this will be the first UK government to deliver that 30-year-old promise to spend just 0.7 per cent of our national wealth on overseas development.

Not that the Department for International Development (DfID) has escaped the economy drive across government. Central administrative costs are being cut by 33 per cent, the money going instead to support even more effective aid. Because, as I learnt long ago in Oxfam, it's not just how much you spend, it's how well you spend it.

The incoming secretary of state, Andrew Mitchell, ordered a root-and-branch review of our aid spending, which resulted in 16 countries that no longer needed our aid, including Russia and China, being dropped altogether once existing commitments are fulfilled. The most vulnerable and fragile countries will receive more - so aid to Afghanistan is up by 40 per cent. Just to be clear: this isn't the 'securitisation' of aid: conflict-ridden countries like Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia are failing to meet any of their Millennium Development Goals, and this is where our hard-earned cash can make a disproportionate difference.

Still looking for more effective development, a second review analysed the effectiveness of our international partners and directed more aid to the best, such as UNICEF and the Global Fund on Aids. Another of those 'best in class' partners has received a spectacular boost from Britain. The Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) raised enough money from governments, charities and the private sector at its recent DfID-hosted conference to immunise a quarter of a billion of the world's poorest children. The UK alone pledged an extra £163m a year to GAVI for the next five years. The UK total is enough, on average, to vaccinate a child every two seconds all year round, probably saving a life every two minutes.

The government has also set up a new independent aid watchdog - soon to deliver its first report - and an Aid Transparency Guarantee so that everyone can monitor how our money is being spent. Transparency is something we preach to others, and it's right that we practice it too, not least to silence some of the critics who seem to think it's all wasted.

The drive to deliver more aid more effectively has extended to emergency response. The government commissioned my old mate Lord Ashdown to conduct a review of the effectiveness of humanitarian aid. The resulting report was acclaimed on all sides of the House and by experts, NGOs and commentators outside it. The need for better anticipation, preparation and leadership were highlighted, along with an emphasis on improving resilience to disaster, which fed back into DfID's long-term development agenda.

But aid is not the only answer. Wider issues such as conflict, trade, food, business accountability and debt are critical too. So the government has made permanent the former temporary ban on profiteering 'vulture funds', persecuting the most indebted countries, and backed the 'Publish What You Pay' campaign to bring transparency to multinational oil and mining companies' payments to developing world governments. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has championed reform of corporate reporting to highlight companies' records on environmental and social issues.

Can we do better? Of course - and the coalition agreement commits us to try. But that international development is still a priority for this government should be in no doubt whatsoever.

Little Ilyas would agree.

Martin Horwood is the Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham and co-chairman of the Lib Dem international affairs committee

David Taylor says NO

When David Cameron addressed the Conservative Party conference in September, he cited his party's protection of the aid budget as an example of his government's international leadership. That ring-fencing is welcome, especially when contrasted with the actions of other rich nations, but real leadership in fighting poverty is about more than just standing still while others reverse. Real leadership is about having the vision and ambition to move the agenda forward.

With a clear agenda and concrete proposals on a global growth deal - opening up trade, tackling tax evasion and boosting infrastructure - Britain should have been leading efforts at the G20 to reach an agreement that would transform African and low-income countries into genuine, much-needed dynamos for the largest prize: the return to global growth.

Securing such a deal is far from easy. It will require all the 'hard-working, can-do, bulldog spirit' Cameron referred to in his conference speech. It is the sort of leadership the last Labour government - internationalist in our values - showed in summit after summit.

When the G20 met in London in 2009, then - as now - the top priority was to avert a global depression. Gordon Brown, however, still found time to secure agreement for $50bn to help the poorest countries.

In 2005, Brown and Blair worked the phones in advance of the summits that secured the commitment at Gleneagles to double aid to Africa. That was on the back of the debt relief deal secured in 2000, when Gerhard Schröeder and George W Bush famously complained about Blair's Africa focus.

And beyond those summits, in our 13 years in power we built up the DfID from scratch, trebled UK aid and became, according to the OECD, a world leader in aid effectiveness, lifting three million people permanently out of poverty each year.

Cameron deserves credit for hosting the GAVI conference earlier this year and working hard to achieve new funds for life-saving vaccination and immunisation programmes, and he has publicly rebuked other G8 leaders for backsliding on their aid commitments.
But beyond that, this government's record has been patchy at best, and ideologically misguided at worst.

Take Cameron's first appearance on the international stage at the Canadian G8. Downing Street admitted that the PM had "simply not fought" to keep the Gleneagles commitments in the final communiqué. Meanwhile, at the UN Millennium Development Goal summit later last year, Nick Clegg turned up with nothing more than a three-year-old recycled pledge on malaria.

Gaining agreement at international summits really does come down to the phone calls, the one-to-one meetings, the cajoling undertaken by political leaders, but in the lead-up to the Cannes G20 summit we saw no evidence of any such leadership.

Instead, Cameron and Osborne were fighting against a Financial Transaction Tax (FTT), a policy backed by Germany, France, Bill Gates and the Pope among others, which, even on modest estimates, could raise billions for domestic and international efforts against poverty and climate change.

In public they have insisted they are supportive of the idea if it could be agreed globally. But there is categorical evidence from NGOs and foreign governments that the UK lobbied hard against such an agreement being reached, opposing it at the last G20 finance ministers' meeting, and blocking any reference to it in the EU's pre-G20 position.

With typical chutzpah, Cameron likes to claim those states in favour of such an FTT just want to "get out of their aid commitments". But dig a little deeper into his commitment to spend 0.7 per cent on aid, and there are real concerns here.

Some money is being diverted - like the £200m spent on the tiny island of St Helena's new airport, after apparent lobbying from Lord Ashcroft - equivalent to the DfID's entire budget for clean water and sanitation. Or the £2m of aid money that was spent on the Pope's recent visit to the UK.

The freezing of aid spending to 0.56 per cent for two years will cost £2.2bn - more than the cost of purchasing vaccines for all infants in poor countries. And despite growing support - from India to Sierra Leone - for publicly funded health and education systems modelled on our own, the Conservatives are pushing for private sector provision in DfID's new private sector strategy.

Andrew Mitchell once called the Labour Campaign for International Development (LCID) "Labour apparatchiks", but we are not opposing for opposition's sake. If it seems as though nothing the Conservatives do is ever good enough, it is because until they demonstrate the same vision, ambition and leadership as Labour did, it won't be.

David Taylor is the chairman of LCID

Tags: David Taylor, International Development, Issue 42, Labour campaign for internationa, Martin horwood

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