The government yesterday laid out the spending cuts for departments in the Comprehensive Spending Review. Only two budgets remain untouched: the NHS and international development.
Responding, ActionAid UK Executive Director Richard Miller said: “It is very welcome that the government has committed to reaching 0.7% in these tough times, as it has consistently promised not to balance the books on the backs of the world’s poorest people.”
“We don’t just have a moral obligation to help the world’s poorest people, it is also in our best interests - a more stable global economy is integral to our own economic recovery,” he said. “On top of that the poorest people in the world did not create the financial crisis, but are suffering the worst effects with almost a billion people going hungry every night.”
In 1970 the UK promised to give 0.7% of our national income as international aid, and the coalition government is promising to honour this pledge by 2013 – 43 years later. Currently we give £7.5 billion a year, rising to £9 billion from November – 0.56% of national income. With UK aid making up less than two pence in the pound of government spending, it remains a relatively small amount that brings huge benefits for all. In yesterday’s announcements there was a decision to ‘flatline’ aid spending at current levels, with a spike in 2013 to meet the 0.7% target. This may prove problematic for some developing countries to absorb. A more gradual increase would be preferable.
The government maintains that aid spending is in our national interest – helping create a safer, fairer and more equal world. Such political commitment is in part thanks to the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign, which helped establish political consensus after millions of us called for better aid, debt relief and trade justice.
"Our bargain with taxpayers is this," says International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell. “In return for contributing your money to help the world’s poorest people, it is our duty to spend every penny of aid effectively. My top priority will be to secure maximum value for money in aid through greater transparency, rigorous independent evaluation and an unremitting focus on results.”
But as Mitchell points out, any money we give as aid must be spent effectively. Internationally the UK is a leading donor, both in terms of keeping its promises and the quality of its aid. When aid is spent well, it achieves amazing things. It helps people set up their own businesses, hold their governments to account, and helps governments strengthen their systems and budgets.
No magic bullet
But it would be naïve to contend that aid money has been a magic ‘cure all’. Corruption is a major problem in some countries, but many poor people are themselves demanding an end to it and it’s vital we support them in their fight.
Besides, rich countries and multinationals aren’t without sin; it was only eight months ago, for example, that UK arms firm BAE paid out almost £300 million in the face of serious accusations of corruption in Tanzania.
Billions of dollars a year are still wasted through poor donor administration, late aid payments and the use of overpriced and ineffective technical expertise. At a 2005 meeting in Paris, donors signed up to targets for improving the way they give aid. ActionAid is campaigning for faster progress towards the 2005 targets, and calling for a more ambitious successor to the Paris agreement at a meeting in South Korea in 2011. We hope the UK will continue its leading role in this area.
The truth is, just as all aid money is not lost to corruption, nor is aid solely responsible for an imminent end to world poverty. It is part of a package of measures needed to bring people out of poverty. But such packages do work.
After the Rwandan genocide in 1994 the country underwent extensive reform, including setting up the Rwandan Revenue Authority with a £20 million grant from the UK. Today, the revenue authority collects that amount from its citizens every four weeks.
As a result government spending on water, health and education has expanded massively, generating incredible results. From 1994 to 2006 poverty dropped from 74% of the population to 56%. Almost all children now get a primary education.
Ultimately, developing countries don’t want to remain dependent on aid. Vietnam, for example, a country where aid helped enshrine national development goals, now has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia and has expressed a desire to be a developed country by 2020.
Since the election, The Department for International Development (DFID) has put a greater scrutiny on how it spends aid money. It has pledged to focus more closely on results, effectiveness, transparency and value for money. The government announced this week that there will be a greater focus on conflict affected countries like Afghanistan. And, as we have done for many years, ActionAid will be playing a key role in pushing it to keep to its focus on poverty alleviation, and making sure that UK aid helps those who understand their situation best – people and governments in poor countries – to decide their own futures.
Richard Miller said: “This focus on poverty alleviation must continue and aid programmes must be delivered by civil society and local government with the appropriate skills, rather than military actors. ActionAid looks forward to hearing more detail from the government about how UK aid will work in practice in conflict countries. We are concerned about how UK aid will continue to help support those countries which are not wrestling with conflict but still face a protracted battle against poverty."
So while agencies such as ActionAid must continue campaigning to change the structural issues that keep countries dependent on aid, a short-term debate must be won in the UK. It is important that aid is effective and provides value for money, but it is equally as important that criticisms of parts of the industry should not be used to question the worth of all international development work.
photo : ©Jenny Matthews/ActionAid