Another three years to wait for 0.7% overseas aid?

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

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

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

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

DebateTech
Show Hide image

Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.