Thursday, 29 March 2012

Should the UK commit to spending 0.7%?

By Spencer Henson

Sceptical elements of the British media have a big smile across their face today!  A just-published report of the Lords Economic Affairs Committee has recommended that the UK government should do away with its commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on aid to developing countries.  An editorial in the Daily Mail reads: “Now will they listen on overseas aid?”

Now, I have only skimmed over the report, but my less passionate reading of it comes to a more sanguine conclusion. The concern the report raises is that an aid target based on amount spent may not put sufficient focus on the effectiveness of that aid. This is a legitimate concern. Certainly boosting aid spending needs to go hand-in-hand with efforts to find the best ways in which to spend this money towards the goal of eradicating global poverty, and to ensuring accountability (provided such efforts don’t then act to compromise the very effectiveness we are trying to achieve).

My hope is that this report will contribute to ongoing discussions over where and how the UK can have the greatest impact on the global poor. However, we cannot ignore the fact that reports like this are “grist to the mill” of the sceptical. More importantly, is the impact this report will have on debates that are below and beyond the headlines.

But why are targets like 0.7% important?  
Certainly the International NGO community has reacted with horror to the notion that the UK government should drop its commitment to reaching this target by 2013.

I think there are two reasons why targets matter:

  1. They are a good way of holding the government to account in terms of the aid given to poorer parts of the world.  Of course we should always be looking at ways in which the effectiveness of aid can be enhanced – who can disagree with that? And arguably the Department for International Development (DFID) can do better in this regard. However, measures of aid effectiveness do not provide blunt and easily communicated metrics that can be used to ascertain if and when the government is ‘stumping up the cash’. For better or for worse, the 0.7% target serves this purpose. Thus, a Canadian friend of mine recently retorted something like: “I wish Canada was more like the UK, your government has met the target whilst we are nowhere near it. It makes me ashamed especially given it was a Canadian that established the target in the first place”.
  2. The 0.7% target is also important as a means to ‘drum up’ the support of the public. Such targets provide an easy line of communication to the general population who we must recognise know little about international development or the causes of global poverty, and indeed think little of it in their daily lives.  It is easy to pose the question, is our government doing its part? Less easy to judge what this ‘part’ actually is. Of course, the answer lays well beyond how much it spends on aid and even how this aid is spent. Also important are polices on trade, immigration, environmental protection, etc. However, in a world of a frantic media, simple ‘tag lines’ such as 0.7% serve a useful purpose in getting the public to consider: are we doing enough?

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