Today, a report from the Lords’ Economic Affairs Committee recommends that the UK government abandons its target of giving 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) in aid to poor countries and communities. This extraordinary call only serves to highlight how remote the Committee members are from the reality of life in developing countries.
Every year, 7.6 million children die before the age of five from preventable causes, and almost a billion people go to bed hungry every single night. This scandalous situation cannot be allowed to continue into the 21st century.
Aid remains vitally needed, and it works. 40 million more children are in school today, and 2 billion people now have access to clean water, in part thanks to aid. Having healthier, better-educated citizens means that poor countries are starting to become more prosperous and less dependent on aid. ActionAid's Real Aid 3 report last year found that aid dependency has fallen by one-third in the past decade. But, as the figures above show, there is still a long way to go to end poverty and its pernicious effects. 0.7% GNI is globally agreed as a fair contribution from the world’s richest countries to help end poverty. It has been reiterated at numerous UN conferences and Summits since 1970. And it remains as valid today as ever. The UN has calculated that just to reach the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), rich countries would need to give 0.54% GNI in aid.
Yet reaching the MDGs has always been considered a mere staging post on a much longer journey to achieve development for all, and in any case there are development financing needs that lie outside the MDG framework. Clearly then, giving 0.7% GNI still stands as a relevant target for rich countries to carry their share of the burden of achieving the end of poverty.
Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that reaching 0.7% enjoys unprecedented cross-party support in UK politics. But why legislate? Well, the unpredictability of aid flows has been shown to be a major cause of reducing its effectiveness. Legislation will provide extra protection to the aid budget, giving aid programmes the time and space they need to make a difference. At the same time, enshrining the 0.7% commitment in law will establish it as a basic element of the UK's character, as a country that owns its responsibility to those less fortunate. It may also inspire other members of the international community to keep to their commitments – the EU, for example, has a collective pledge to reach 0.7% by 2015.All parties deserve credit for sticking to their word on 0.7% legislation.
And indeed, it is hard to understand how the Committee arrived at the recommendation to abandon the 0.7% target on the basis of the report’s contents. It finds that aid has a positive, if not decisive, impact on growth. It recognises that aid helped some notable success stories – Korea, Ghana, Botswana – to set a course out of aid dependency. Many of the major concerns it cites are already being tackled by the government – as it readily acknowledges. And the report ignores completely the vital role has played in ensuring that children are protected from disease and in school today – saving lives and creating futures literally millions of poor people.
So the call to abandon the 0.7% comes as an unwarranted broadside against aid and should be seen for what it is – a sign that the Committee members are seriously out of touch with global poverty and development today. As Andrew Mitchell says ‘Going back on this promise would cost lives’ – how will the Committee feel if this charge is laid at their door in years to come?