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.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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