NGOs are being outmanoeuvred on overseas aid

If the promised legislation to lock in the 0.7% is not secured in the next two years, the NGOs will only have themselves to blame.

I agree with David Cameron. Yesterday he told the UN General Assembly that “when we make a promise to the poorest people in the world, we should keep it, not turn our back on people who are trusting us to help them.” But I really wish that he would keen the promise that he made in his manifesto and legislate for the commitment he reaffirmed yesterday. On page 117 of the Conservative manifesto, his commitment, and the timing of it, was 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.”

This was reaffirmed in on page 22 of the coalition agreement:

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

Just after the new Development Secretary Justine Greening was appointed, the Chancellor argued that “it is not about legislation; it is about delivering the money." But I beg to differ.

Yesterday, UK development NGOs were falling over themselves to welcome the Prime Minister’s declaration at the UN but the NGOs are at risk of being outmanoeuvred on this issue.

No doubt the aid budget in 2013/14 will represent 0.7 per cent but DFID will almost certainly underspend it. This is because the budget has effectively been frozen since 2010 and so will jump by a third in 2013. Greening will be under pressure to deliver another underspend in 2014/15 after which the future of the aid budget will be subject to the next round of election manifestos.

I predict that, as opposition from their backbenchers grow, the Conservatives will commit to an independent review after the next election, much like the one on tuition fees after the last election and like the review on the third Heathrow runway after the next election. The UN’s 0.7 per cent target is 40 years old, after all.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats will be under no electoral pressure to create a political dividing line on this issue. In fact the opinion polling suggest the opposite. Their political incentive will be to wait for the outcome of such a review to neutralise the debate until after the election.

I have written for New Statesman about the importance of the promised legislation many times before (here, here, here and here). But after the reshuffle, I am now more convinced than ever before that if the NGOs can’t secure the legislation in this Parliament, and thus require another vote to repeal it, then the UK’s aid budget will only remain at 0.7 per cent for two years.

Justine Greening may be the first Development Secretary in British history who didn’t want the job. Metro newspaper claimed she said “I didn’t bloody well come into politics to distribute money to people in poor countries” [as in the print version, although now removed from online as Greening's office disputes the quote], while The Times said three No 10 sources claimed said she argued for an hour at Downing Street on reshuffle day.

When Greening is reported as saying she wants the aid budget to “do more, with less” I feel conflicted (Greening denies having said this). I like the first sentiment but not the second. Everyone wants taxpayers money spent well and if after two years of operation, Andrew Mitchell’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact isn’t working, then Greening is right to be focused on value for money. But the government did inherit a department that the OECD and the ONE campaign consistently ranked as a global leader in aid effectiveness.

On Newsnight last night, David Grossman rehearsed all the arguments about why the aid budget should not rise as promised. But the most compelling argument of the night was put by Adrian Lovett of the ONE campaign: that you can’t clear the deficit by cutting the aid budget anyway. Recent IPPR analysis of the big choices facing politicians in the next Spending Review shows that the planned rise in the DfID budget is just a rounding error in the public finances. The big choices are about the NHS budget, the welfare budget, future tax rises and crucially, the pace at which the deficit is reduced. Even if you scrapped DfID entirely, you’d still have to face up to one of these four big public spending choices.

The spirit of Make Poverty History is needed now more than ever. IPPR and the ODI have studied UK public attitudes towards international aid and development as a contribution to the next phase of UK campaigning on poverty reduction and global development. It is time for NGOs to stop apologising for politicians and campaign for them keep their promises. If the promised legislation is not secured in the next two years, the NGOs will only have themselves to blame.

UPDATE 26/09/2012 16:00

A DfID spokesperson said:

"Justine Greening's views are clear. She has said "Delivering on our promise of 0.7% is the right thing to do, whether it's helping countries cope with natural disasters and famines, or working with some of the British charities who are world leaders in international development. I will critically assess our budget on behalf of the British taxpayer to make sure that, pound for pound, it goes exactly where it's intended and where it can make the biggest difference."

Richard Darlington was Special Adviser at DFID 2008-2010 and is now Head of News at IPPR - follow him on twitter: @RDarlo

New International Development Secretary Justine Greening. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle