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Another three years to wait for 0.7% overseas aid?

The Tories have again delayed their pledge to meet the UN aid spending target.

International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell.
International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell looks at a refugee at the Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border. Photograph: Getty Images.

The Observer yesterday reported that the Department for International Development (DFID) have pushed back their commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on overseas aid from 2013 to 2015. The report is based on the new update to DFID’s business plan which now lists the end date for both the commitment to legislate and also the commitment to meet the UN spending target as "Mar 2015".

I’ve written for The Staggers several times about the government’s slow back-track on this commitment, here, here and here. The commitment is clear. The coalition agreement, says on page 22:

We will honour our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid from 2013, and enshrine this commitment in law.

But, on page 117 of the Conservative manifesto, the commitment, and the timing of it, was more explicit:

Will be fully committed to achieving, by 2013, the UN target of spending 0.7% of national income as aid. We will stick to the rules laid down by the OECD about what spending counts as aid. We will legislate in the first session of a new Parliament to lock in this level of spending for every year from 2013.

The Observer suggests that Labour will try to force the government’s hand by using a private member's bill from a Labour member of the development select committee. Previously, the International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, told Channel 4 News that the bill is ready and that "the law will come… but it must take its place in the queue."

Previously, I speculated that the go-slow was simply to avoid the optics of a backbench Tory rebellion. But the change to DFID’s business plan suggests that the legislative delay is necessary because the policy itself is to be delayed. This move might be popular with the public at a time when public finances are under pressure, but it would represent a breach of trust and would break the manifesto commitments of both governing parties.

Next week, IPPR and the ODI are publishing a report on UK public attitudes towards international aid and development as a contribution to the next phase of UK campaigning on poverty reduction and global development. Broken promises from the government risk returning the political and public debate on development to an unproductive political competition about spending, at the expense of the conversation that the public want to hear about results, change and progress in the developing world.

The last time they were in office, the Conservatives halved the aid budget. Labour trebled it. One reason the Conservatives made the promise was to achieve all-party consensus and put the issue beyond doubt. A broken promise on 0.7% would significantly damage the UK’s international position as a leading advocate for development and poverty reduction.

Next week sees the eagerly awaited publication of the ONE campaign’s DATA report that assess the record of rich countries against the promises they have made to the world’s poorest. The UK’s ability to pressure other donors to keep their promises will be seriously compromised if the Government reneges on its own commitment.

If David Cameron is going to show global leadership as the co-chair of the panel creating the next set of international development goals, he needs to start by showing leadership in his own Parliament and seeing off the opposition in his own party. Labour’s private member's bill may force his hand but a true global leader doesn’t whip from behind, they lead from the front.

Update: DFID have been in touch and say: "The position has not changed. The Bill is ready and will be introduced when Parliamentary time allows. The Business Plan has been updated to reflect the final date by which the Bill can be made law within this Parliament.”

Richard Darlington was Special Adviser at DFID 2009-2010 and is now Head of News at IPPR - follow him on twitter: @RDarlo