I got back from Malta on Friday, just in time to watch the end of the House of Commons debate on enshrining in British law the longstanding, but widely ignored,
international commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on international development. By an overwhelming majority (146 to 5), the bill passed. It still has to go to the House of Lords, but it looks pretty certain that it will become law.
In political terms, this is extraordinary. When governments around the world are cutting aid budgets and abolishing aid departments, and at a time of widespread austerity hitting nearly all other functions of government, the Brits have become not only the first G8 country to reach 0.7, but also the first to fix it in law. It doesn’t make it impossible for a future government to do a U turn, but it massively increases the political costs and obstacles to doing so.
Why did it happen? There has long been a striking level of cross party leadership and consensus on aid in the UK. Labour set up DFID as a cabinet level department, with Gordon Brown and Tony Blair investing serious political capital at Gleneagles and elsewhere. David Cameron and George Osborne have been firm in their support for aid and the 0.7 target. The private members’ bill debated on Friday was brought by a former Liberal Democrat cabinet minister, Michael Moore.
A long British tradition of NGOs and faith-based organizations laid the grounds for an effective lobby of MPs by their constituents. Founded 17 years ago, DFID has become the world’s leading bilateral aid agency. And yes, I dare say there are elements of colonial hangover – duty, guilt, or White Man’s Burden, you decide.
I can’t help being a contrarian, and amid the euphoria, noted that some of the most interesting current work on reforming aid, such as the Doing Development Differently initiative, emphasizes that money is often not the main need in tackling issues such as dysfunctional governance – indeed, it can get in the way. How does the vote affect that debate?
Following the vote, the FT argued that it ‘wrongly puts the priority on the quantity of money that Britain spends on aid rather than the quality of its projects.’ Actually, the exact opposite is true. Having now settled the issue of aid quantity, aid organizations, decision makers in developing countries, academics and critics can start to address issues of aid quality that have previously received too little public attention – not least because supporters of aid have been understandably wary that public constructive criticism intended to improve the way aid works would be twisted by ‘gotcha’ critics looking to cut the budget.
This is particularly true in the case of innovation. Aid agencies need to find new answers and approaches on everything from fragile states to climate change to rights and accountability. But fear of failure and a tendency towards box-ticking has made it extremely hard to experiment, fail and learn. Aid sceptics have argued in the past that the sheer volume of aid makes it impossible to be agile, flexible and try out new things, and that ‘less and better aid’ should be the mantra. But a shrinking aid budget comes with anxiety and pressures of its own – there is no sign of those countries that have cut aid becoming suddenly more innovative. Quite the reverse.
The next frontier challenge is how to use aid money to help find these new solutions. Perhaps the big battalions of aid dollars could be directed where we know they are effective – vaccines, research, teachers and nurses, direct support to governments. Then other parts of the aid community can focus on those areas (such as governance), where the need is for brains not bucks – DFID and others won’t have to constantly look over their shoulders and worry about attacks from the aid sceptics when funding research, trying out new things (with a consequently higher likelihood of failure) and finding and keeping expert staff (especially from the countries concerned).
Getting serious about issues of quality and innovation matters not just because it will ensure that aid has wider impact. It will also help prevent any subsequent reversal
of Friday’s vote. Despite leadership from the top, support for aid among backbenchers is shallow, and public opinion polls are contradictory. Aid proponents would be very unwise to rest on their laurels after this vote – there is a lot of work to be done.
If Friday’s decision leads in that direction, this could be the dawn of a whole new era for British aid, hopefully with knock-on effects on other donors. Aid might just have got its mojo back.
For other analysis of the vote, try the Guardian’s Larry Elliot insisting that every silver lining has a cloud.