Cutting the aid budget and skipping meetings: is Cameron still a global leader?

It's worry that NGOs seem to have become far better at campaigning for new things than holding the Government to account for what they have already promised.


The Prime Minister is supposed to be in Bali today, but instead, he is giving a speech on immigration and welfare benefits. Being Prime Minister is a busy job, but when he was picked by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to co-chair the UN’s high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda, the assumption was that he’d be going to the meetings.

The "high-level" panel is so high-level, that there are only 30 people on it, carefully balanced to represent all global interests and come up with the next set of global objectives, to replace the Millennium Development Goals . David Cameron is representing the G8 and the rest of the developed world, while the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia represent the developing world, as his fellow co-chairs.

But Cameron isn’t there. He’s sent Development Secretary Justine Greening to represent him. Obama sends Cameron, Cameron sends Greening… But the NGOs aren’t up in arms. Engagement in the work of the high-level panel has thus far been the preserve of the academic development elite.

By contrast, Comic Relief and the IF campaign have been engaging the public in a far more accessible conversation. The IF campaign was highly visible last week, lobbying for the Chancellor to keep his pledge on a 0.7 per cent budget for overseas aid. And come Budget day, NGOs were falling over themselves to congratulate the UK on becoming the first G8 country to meet the 0.7 per cent pledge.

But in the detail of the Budget, it emerged that DFID had contributed to the record £10.9bn departmental under-spend to the tune of £500m (see page 70). From a total departmental budget of £8.8bn, an under-spend of £500m is a major event. But the NGOs have not been up in arms. They have become far better at campaigning  for new things, than holding the Government to account for what they previously promised.

Do under-spends really matter? One way of putting that DFID’s under-spend into context is to look at what a £500m under-spend could have funded. Next year DFID plans to spend a total of £500m combating malaria, but they could have done it last year, simply by using their under-spend.

Over the weekend, The Sun reported Tory MP Priti Patel’s criticism of DFID for spend £45m on ‘bonuses for pen pushers’. Patel says: “this money could have been much better spent on transforming people’s lives,” and The Sun’s report suggests that it “would pay for tetanus jabs for more than a BILION kids”. On that maths, DFID’s under-spend, with or without the ‘bonuses for pen pushers’, would pay for tetanus jabs for 10 billion kids.

Rightly, the week before the Budget, Britain was celebrating a record breaking fundraising effort during Comic Relief. A huge £75m was raised, £16m of which came from DFID match funding the generosity of the British public. But the following week, we discover that they could have matched it six times over, just by using their under-spend.

If the Government under-spend £500m when their aid budget it 0.56% (or £8.8bn), how much will they under-spend when it is 0.7 per cent (or £11.3bn)? I have written for Staggers before suggesting that the UK may never actually spend 0.7 per cent because the Government will continue to under-spend for the last two years of this Parliament, fail to fulfil their manifesto commitment to enshrine 0.7 per cent in law and then review the aid budget the other-side of the next election. I hope I’m wrong. But the lack of outcry from the development community when Cameron skips UN meetings and DFID under-spend so dramatically, doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence. 

Richard Darlington was Special Adviser at DFID 2008-2010 and is now Head of News at IPPR - follow him on twitter: @RDarlo

David Cameron with Justine Greening last year. Photograph: Getty Images

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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.