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.