The latest challenge to Britain’s 0.7 per cent aid spending target offers little that is new. While the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee Report marshals a fairly balanced argument against the imposition of arbitrary spending targets, what we see in the press is the by-now familiar “shoot from the hip” critique of the aid budget as bloated and ineffective. The result is an escalation of calls for an extension of the austerity agenda to the world’s poor – no surprise there… On the other hand, the fact that a debate which directly affects hundreds of millions of lives is reduced to percentage points should be a cause for concern, no matter which side of the aisle you sit.
Support for the 0.7 per cent largely transcends all three major political parties in Westminster yet there are and always have been question-marks about the robustness of the target and whether unequivocal support for it is actually the best political strategy for those committed to sustaining the UK commitment to aid. It is, after all , a 40-year-old target, based on an idea of how much rich countries should cough up to meet the financing gap facing poor countries. It bears no relation to current needs (which are still significant and are changing) nor to rich countries’ ability to pay (which is also significant). The target has all too often focused the attention of campaigning organisations on the quantity over the quality of development assistance and diverted much-needed political capital away from demonstrating the role that aid can play.
That said, the UK’s international development budget affects more people than any other government budget. The idea we cannot afford it is nonsense and the UK aid pound works incredibly hard on behalf of the world’s poor, often in very difficult circumstances. If we want to make a change in the world then the taxes we pay towards development are probably the surest way to do that. tThat shouldn’t be underestimated for either its moral value or economic and diplomatic benefit. Plus it gives us a mechanism to hold other countries to account and ensure that the fight to end poverty is a global endeavour.
Solutions to global problems are far from simple. If money alone was the answer to global poverty then we’d be in a different place now. It takes more than just schools, vaccines and roads to deliver sustained progress. You also need more private investment, more effective teachers, more technology, innovation and better-quality leadership. Spending money on development without involving developing country governments and their citizens in decisions about how to spend it will only create unsustainable systems and unsustainable solutions.
Effectiveness and value for money are vital components of the aid conversation; it can never be a case of quantity over quality. The government’s creation of an aid watchdog has started a process of cultural change and it has been met with a serious effort from NGOs to show results and value for money. Beyond the headlines the House of Lords committee’s critique is reasoned but remains behind the curve of current action. Continuing critical thought about the future of Britain’s aid relationships is essential, but political and media attention must find a way beyond the narrow prism of 0.7 per cent if the debate is to wake up to the challenges now framing global development.
Dr Alison Evans is the director of the Overseas Development Institute