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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.

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

 

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