Overseas Development Aid
Last week the Commons debated the UK’s international aid policy and the temporary drop in our Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) proposed by ministers.
As a former joint minister for DFID and the Foreign Office, I understand what potential damage this drop in funding will do to UK-funded NGOs and people living unimaginably tough lives who rely on assistance and development aid.
However, the UK economy that makes our generous aid budget possible has just taken its biggest hit for 300 years. Government has been compelled to shell out vast sums it does not have to deal with the crisis.
As a former minister I know that government is about trade-offs and hard choices that have real life consequences. One Labour MP who seemingly hadn’t been listening intervened on my speech on Wednesday to ask whether I took my share of responsibility for those consequences. Yes, of course, but the corollary to her point is that we might also take responsibility for a commitment to UK aid, high by any international standards, that has meant we have met our aid 0.7% of GNI target in every year since 2013.
Given that spending money we don’t have simply isn’t sustainable, I will support the temporary cut in aid from 0.7 to 0.5% but only for one year as promised by ministers - particularly as it seems the economy will return to pre pandemic levels within 12 months, much sooner than seemed possible until recently. In developing my approach, I’ve reflected on the opposition to our aid budget that I often get on the doorstep and on recent polling that suggests 77% of the public agree on the need to temporarily cut the aid budget given the circumstances.
Aid means different things to different people. The British Foreign Policy Group’s most recent survey shows this, with some calling it a moral duty and others highlighting the diplomatic benefits of aid.
For me what matters is what works. There is no virtue in disbursing aid if it does no good or is wasted. I note the effectiveness of UK aid has improved substantially over the past decade, there is no doubt about that. However, I’m dismayed by the occasional story of UK funds being used for projects that can be presented by the media as trivial or wasteful. Sadly they tarnish the whole international development programme. I made this point on Wednesday.
Ronald Regan’s Secretary of State George Schultz was an exponent of aid as a means of inculcating values and cementing international relations. US aid programmes in Uganda, Ethiopia/Tigray, and Mozambique were highly successful, exemplars in the importance of values-based foreign policy. In the Cold War era of great power politics, they distinguished America from the Soviets and helped to keep jurisdictions from the Kremlin’s maw.
The government’s Integrated Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy Review spoke of promoting prosperity, values, and influence. The merging of the FCO with DFID was also designed to connect humanitarian assistance with the UK’s wider interests. If you’re confident about your values that should not be a problem and it helps convince a sceptical public that aid is well spent and in their interests.