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
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

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