An important intervention in the aid debate

A new report by the ONE campaign shows how the UK aid budget will make a difference.

A new report by the ONE campaign shows how the UK aid budget will make a difference.

Today the ONE campaign has published a report that calculates what the UK international aid budget will actually be able to achieve between now and the next election. It is an incredibly important but also very clever interjection into the debate on overseas aid which continues to rage, despite the political consensus at the last election.

All three parties committed to meet the UN target of 0.7 per cent by 2013 in their manifestos, but the Conservatives went even further. Following Gordon Brown's announcement at Labour's 2009 party conference that Labour would legislate to make the commitment a legally binding target, the Conservative manifesto raised the stakes, declaring, on page 117:

A new Conservative government 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.

Despite this being one of the longest ever sessions of Parliament, International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell has told journalists that there is no time for the legislation. So the ONE campaign has cleverly turned the debate from input - £8.6bn of your taxes - into outputs.

On the same day as the former Security Minister Lord West tells the Daily Telegraph that our aid budget should be cut in order to reinvest in the Royal Navy, the ONE campaign show us what your taxes can achieve. Lord West says he is "horrified our naval flotilla now comprises only 19 frigates and destroyers". But ONE's report reminds us of the horrifying fact that 50 million women around the world give birth outside of a health facility and without the support of a midwife or health worker.

On the same day we learn of a £2bn aircraft carrier procurement error, Lord West says our ability to recapture the Falkland Islands is at stake. But the ONE report reminds us that this year 358,000 mothers will die in unaided child birth and that 2.6 million stillbirths will result and a further 2.8 million children will die in their first week of life. As I argued when Liam Fox's letter on the 0.7 per cent aid commitment leaked, there is no trade off between body armour and bednets. We can have both.

Mitchell made clear in the Sunday Times (£) yesterday, that development is a process and that aid is just a step on the developing world's journey to self-sufficiency. The UK taxpayer should be proud that their country spends their taxes through a development department (DFID) and not an aid agency (like the State Department's USAid).

Mitchell has decided that DFID will leave India in time for the next UK election because the country will be rich enough to deal with its own poverty. But there will still be around 400 million people living on less than 80p ($1.25) a day in India, more than in the 51 countries of sub-Saharan Africa put together. The £280m a year that the DFID saves will be reinvested not in warships but in water sanitation. Let's just hope that India makes poverty reduction a priority but also be proud that the UK taxpayer made one big difference to the lives of the 1.2 million Indian children who have gone to primary school since 2003 thanks to us.

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

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

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.