Much has been made of whether the UK Government will honour the manifesto promises made to reach the UN target of spending 0.7% of GNI on aid by 2013, and to ‘enshrine this commitment in law’. While the Government has said will commit to 0.7% in legislation, there was no International Development Bill included in the Queens Speech meaning there’s no immediate plan to make this commitment legally binding in the next year.
Why does this matter? Well, any government’s overriding priority is to stay in power. There are many conflicting priorities in government and, especially at the moment, too little money to pay for them. Limited resources and the desire to stay in power, force governments to take short cuts and break promises when it comes to policy – trying to do more and please more voters with less.
Placing the 0.7% commitment in law is no guarantee it will be stuck to, but it should help. It would also provide the chance to make sure the money is spent on what it should be. Parliament can create and end any law. With Governments’ controlling Parliament through an in-built majority and the whipping system, even if a commitment is enshrined in law it can be missed, overturned or fudged.
‘Fudging’ is of particular concern when it comes to the 0.7% commitment. Many campaigners are worried that even if the UK spends 0.7% on aid, this could in effect go towards other government priorities. The lines seem increasingly blurred between poverty reduction and other international priorities, like dealing with refugees and helping countries adapt to climate change. This provides the potential to use international aid for programmes other than those which directly reduce the poverty of the world’s poorest people. Already some are questioning whether the announcement to increase by 40% aid spending to Afghanistan (well before the Government’s bilateral aid review to determine which countries receive more UK aid has concluded) is driven by strategic concerns.
Bringing forward legislation on the 0.7% commitment as soon as possible is important because it will force Parliament and the government to openly discuss not only the 0.7% commitment itself, but also what is meant by this commitment. Deliberating what this aid should be used for will enhance scrutiny of the commitment and should make sure it really does help the poorest people in the world. This is true both for MPs and opposition parties in Westminster, but also for wider scrutiny carried out by activists, the public and the media.
There are no guarantees in this process, but placing 0.7% in law as soon as possible should strengthen government resolve to achieve this target, and provide the means to ensure this aid is spent on what really matters and is not diluted by other priorities.