The aid question

There are challenges to the 0.7 per cent target, but the debate should be wider than a number.

The latest challenge to Britain's 0.7 per cent aid spending target offers little that is new. While the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee Report marshals a fairly balanced argument against the imposition of arbitrary spending targets, what we see in the press is the by-now familiar "shoot from the hip" critique of the aid budget as bloated and ineffective. The result is an escalation of calls for an extension of the austerity agenda to the world's poor - no surprise there... On the other hand, the fact that a debate which directly affects hundreds of millions of lives is reduced to percentage points should be a cause for concern, no matter which side of the aisle you sit.

Support for the 0.7 per cent largely transcends all three major political parties in Westminster yet there are and always have been question-marks about the robustness of the target and whether unequivocal support for it is actually the best political strategy for those committed to sustaining the UK commitment to aid. It is, after all , a 40-year-old target, based on an idea of how much rich countries should cough up to meet the financing gap facing poor countries. It bears no relation to current needs (which are still significant and are changing) nor to rich countries' ability to pay (which is also significant). The target has all too often focused the attention of campaigning organisations on the quantity over the quality of development assistance and diverted much-needed political capital away from demonstrating the role that aid can play.

That said, the UK's international development budget affects more people than any other government budget. The idea we cannot afford it is nonsense and the UK aid pound works incredibly hard on behalf of the world's poor, often in very difficult circumstances. If we want to make a change in the world then the taxes we pay towards development are probably the surest way to do that. tThat shouldn't be underestimated for either its moral value or economic and diplomatic benefit. Plus it gives us a mechanism to hold other countries to account and ensure that the fight to end poverty is a global endeavour.

Solutions to global problems are far from simple. If money alone was the answer to global poverty then we'd be in a different place now. It takes more than just schools, vaccines and roads to deliver sustained progress. You also need more private investment, more effective teachers, more technology, innovation and better-quality leadership. Spending money on development without involving developing country governments and their citizens in decisions about how to spend it will only create unsustainable systems and unsustainable solutions.

Effectiveness and value for money are vital components of the aid conversation; it can never be a case of quantity over quality. The government's creation of an aid watchdog has started a process of cultural change and it has been met with a serious effort from NGOs to show results and value for money. Beyond the headlines the House of Lords committee's critique is reasoned but remains behind the curve of current action. Continuing critical thought about the future of Britain's aid relationships is essential, but political and media attention must find a way beyond the narrow prism of 0.7 per cent if the debate is to wake up to the challenges now framing global development.

Dr Alison Evans is the director of the Overseas Development Institute

Refugees in Ethiopia following severe drought in the Horn of Africa. Photo: Getty Images
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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.