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In the News

Does the aid bill really show the UK’s commitment to development?

Tom White

16th January 2015

The title of this blog is taken from a Guardian article which is a stepping stone into a discussion about how best the UK can support development across the world.You might think that the best indicator of our desire to help is the amount of money the UK government commits to overseas aid. That opens up two more discussion points. Firstly, does aid actually help poor countries? That’s a debate for another blog. Here, I’m going to focus on a second point: is there more to supporting development than being generous with aid?

Although the current government is keen to promote cuts in public spending (so called ‘austerity’), the health budget and overseas aid budgets are exempt. The UK remains committed to spend 0.7% of its annual income on aid: despite cuts elsewhere, during the next parliament the budget for overseas development looks likely to rise in line with the growth of the economy. That’s astonishing, and not universally popular. The department for international development is said to be actively disliked in Whitehall. It’s not hard to imagine a future government taking an axe to the department. Would that be a disaster for the world’s poor?

According to the article, “the consensus on aid is weak … you do not need to be a genius to see that international development (could) be as friendless as it was in the 1980s, a decade when Britain cut its budget, and undermined attempts, such as the Brandt report, to forge international co-operation on aid, trade and development”

The UK’s aid budget when Labour came to power in 1997 was 0.27% of GDP. But the Labour government managed to forge international agreements over debt relief (the Heavily Indebted Poor Country initiative (HIPC)), tapping in to the verve of the Jubilee 2000 campaign to force often unwilling global leaders to act. Debt relief worked. The International Monetary Fund says that HIPC has helped 36 of the world’s poorest countries and delivered £47.5bn of help. “Before the HIPC Initiative, eligible countries were, on average, spending slightly more on debt service than on health and education combined”, the IMF said. “Now, they have increased markedly their expenditures on health, education, and other social services. On average, such spending is about five times the amount of debt-service payments.”

So there’s more to supporting development than paying out aid. The efforts of politicians really count. It was a political push that set up the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and malaria; championing the cause of universal health coverage and education and putting Africa on the G8 agenda. Governments need to be prepared to spend time and political capital pushing the development agenda. It’s really important that the world gets its next set of development goals right.

The article goes on to criticise current government for being financially generous, but insufficiently active in really pushing a global development agenda that looks at issues like multi-lateral trade agreements, tax evasion, pushing universal health care and education, tackling child labour and forced marriage and deliver global public goods such as helping poor countries cope with climate change or eradicating infectious diseases.

I’ve illustrated this blog with a graphic from Centre for Global Development’s Commitment to Development Index 2013. This NGO takes a broad view of development, ranking the contributions countries make by categories, which are:

  • Quantity and quality of foreign aid
  • Openness to exports
  • Policies that encourage investment and financial transparency
  • Openness to migration
  • Environmental policies
  • Promotion of international security
  • Support for technology creation and transfer

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