The UK will become the first G8 country to achieve the aid target

Today will be remembered as a memorable milestone on that historic journey.

Martin Luther King may have been right to say that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, but he also knew that such a virtuous long-term curve would not be achieved without a lot of daily hammering, heaving and shoving.

Today, after the Chancellor confirmed that Britain will become the first G8 country to reach the 43-year-old 0.7% target for international aid as a share of national income, it feels like one of those moments to step back from the hammering and see the shape of the arc. 

I admit: I didn’t get into global campaigning to achieve the 0.7 target. But I quickly realised it was one necessary step along the road towards a goal that really is worth fighting for: an end to extreme poverty. And I also confess it has taken longer than I thought it would. From the first tentative promises to “begin to reverse the decline” in the aid budget made by New Labour in 1997, to the strong leadership of Blair and Brown in 2005 to get other countries behind bold aid targets and a package of other measures, and the remarkable commitment of David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg since 2010 which has taken this issue out of party politics… it’s been a long road. But today, we can look back and see just how far we’ve travelled.

The arguments remain, of course. There are those who say 0.7 is unnecessary, arbitrary and unaffordable.  But as ONE estimated last year, by reaching 0.7, British taxpayers will put 15.9 million children in school, vaccinate 80 million children against life-threatening diseases, provide safe drinking water for 17 million people and help 77 million get basic financial services, like bank accounts and credit, enabling them to work their way out of poverty for good.

And is 0.7 per cent an arbitrary target? Only in the sense that 70mph is an arbitrary speed limit on the motorway. We can argue about the detail, but the point is that it’s about right. 

As for affordability: it’s 7 pence in every ten pounds of national income. As a proportion of government spending, it is dwarfed by almost everything else. A person earning £30,000 a year contributes about £67 a year to aid, and around £6,595 to everything else. Even in tough times, this is small change that makes a very big difference – and when told the facts about the size of the aid budget, six out of ten people say it is about right or not big enough.

Looking ahead, there are challenges. As the aid budget is pegged to the size of national income, each time the nation’s wealth is revised downwards, aid goes down too. In today’s announcement, £130m was cut from the proposed increase in aid. The Department for International Development can probably just about absorb a hit like that, but it’s a reminder that while the British economy continues to suffer, the world’s poorest people share the burden. And to provide real certainty now about future aid commitments, the right thing to do would be to enshrine the 0.7% target in law, as all three major parties have promised to do in this parliament. The coming Queen’s Speech would be the right time for the Coalition Government to make good on that promise.

Finally, the UK must use this moral authority and political muscle for all it’s worth as they host the G8 this June. The Prime Minister has a great vision for what he can achieve with his G8 presidency. With the necessary political drive, he could help unleash a transparency revolution, so that ordinary citizens have the information they need to hold their governments and others to account, turning resources into results in the fight against extreme poverty. And with other leaders, he can make critical commitments on agriculture and nutrition, putting political weight and financial support behind African-led country plans.  With these two steps in 2013, that vision of an end to extreme poverty will be more achievable than ever.  And today will be remembered as a memorable milestone on that historic journey.

 

Update, 17:42: The original headline on this piece omitted the word "G8". This has now been rectified.

Photograph: Getty Images

Adrian Lovett is the Europe Executive Director of The ONE Campaign

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.