When UK Prime Minister Theresa May called a surprise election last month there was widespread speculation that the Conservative manifesto would drop the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on overseas aid enshrined in law in 2015.
The commitment has been strongly opposed by many within her party, as well as large sections of the media with the Daily Mail leading the charge. Furthermore, it has been closely associated with former UK PM David Cameron, who upon leaving office cited the commitment as one of his key achievements during his time in office.
Until April 21st when May brought speculation on the matter to an end by announcing the pledge would be maintained, the new PM’s position on the matter was not well understood.
This is not the end of the matter, however. While the symbolic value of maintaining the commitment at the time of Brexit was ultimately too much to resist for a UK PM who is arguably more in need of international friends and allies than bolstering her support domestically given her lead in the polls, many unanswered questions remain over who will have control over how much of the £13.3 billion budget and what will they be able to spend it on.
The pressures on the aid budget are vast and varied. While ODA spending is primarily concerned with poverty eradication, there has been a growing trend towards financing security-related costs, as well as spending money at home to meet the cost of the refuge crisis. In 2016 OECD figures revealed that the amount spent domestically was up to 9 per cent, increasing from $6.6 billion in 2014 to around $12 billion. Already May’s government has made it clear that more of the budget will be spent by department’s other than DfID under her watch.
Supporting developing countries to participate in trade and promote inclusive growth is now part of the established narrative around development priorities, reflected to some extent in the make up of the Sustainable Development Goals. It is recognised by policy makers and development experts alike that in order for aid to deliver the sort of transitional and long-term benefits that have so often been lacking more aid must be channelled into trade facilitation projects or one sort or another.
However, the competition for funding is fierce and while these programmes do attempt to quantify the value they deliver, the reality is that the total sum of the benefit is often only fully appreciated over a period longer than that of an election cycle and the nature of the immediate benefits are harder to sell. For a politician to explain why we are supporting road or port building projects in other countries when our roads at home appear to be full of potholes is a lot harder than explaining why we are vaccinating young children from malaria or treating them for Ebola, for example. Yet without proper investment in the former the developing country in question is unlikely to be able to fund its own health programme in the near future, or to deal with crises as they arise. This is a message that must not get lost as the next government looks to establish its priorities when it comes to aid spending. Otherwise even the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent will ultimately fall far short of what is needed.