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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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.