This week it was confirmed that in 2013 the UK will hit the target of spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on official development assistance (ODA). A long-standing campaigning goal for development NGOs and a moral goal for the country have been achieved. And the week before, UK Secretary for International Development Justine Greening said in the House of Commons on Wednesday that she thought it right to look at how DFID "can work more closely with the Ministry of Defence". Let’s take a closer look.
There are three components to the context. Taken together, they do something to illustrate pressures on the coalition government – and, come to that, any future government that tries to be relatively generous on development aid.
The first part of the context grows out of remarks by David Cameron in Amritsar during his trip to India in February. Bloomberg and the Guardian both interpreted him as saying the development aid cash could be diverted to the Ministry of Defence. In Bloomberg's version it sounds like it can be spent on national defence but that's not what Cameron said, which was, as clarified by Downing Street, that ODA could be used to fund three areas of military activity – security, demobilisation and peacekeeping.
…To the Conservative Home
But that is not where the influential Conservative pollster and former deputy chairman of the party, Michael Ashcroft, took the argument in a post on the Conservative Home website. He depicted this as a first step towards dismantling the ringfence around overseas aid and slowing the planned increase in ODA, which he has previously characterised as consisting of 'golden taps' that should be turned off.
It’s interesting that, on the same Conservative Home website, the influential blogger Tim Montgomerie describes the achievement of the 0.7 per cent target for ODA as one of three great moral achievements of the Cameron government, the other two being gay marriage and 2.7 million people not paying income tax. What makes this particularly interesting is that aid critic Michael Ashcroft owns Conservative Home and aid advocate Tim Montgomerie is one of its editors.
As Montgomerie notes, most of his readers object to ODA while domestic budgets are so tight. Indeed, he references a survey showing 86 per cent of Conservative members want the aid budget cut. There is no doubt that the Ashcroft view is much more representative of Conservative opinion than Montgomerie’s. This is the second part of the context to Justine Greening’s remarks in the House of Commons – Conservative distaste for one the coalition’s flagship policies. But, take note, the general public shares this view (though not by a majority of six to one); it is part of the political reality in Britain today.
Against this background it is not surprising that the general interpretation of Cameron’s intent in his Amritsar remarks was to win some acquiescence from the aid sceptics by appearing (and only appearing) to concede some ground to them.
What the minister said
And so to Justine Greening. She was handling Parliamentary Questions, one of the House of Commons’ moments for institutionalised jousting. She made two comments on the theme of ODA and security issues. First, in a prepared answer (i.e. it was written and she read it out) to a question from a Labour MP, she said:
"The Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence are working together within existing international rules on official development assistance spending to consider how we can better use Government resources in dealing with the humanitarian and development aspects of conflict and instability around the world."
Then, in a separate answer to a follow-up question by a Conservative MP, answering off the cuff but undoubtedly well briefed, she said:
"The existing ODA guidelines clearly set out what spend can be counted as ODA and what cannot be, but things such as peacekeeping fall within the ODA definition and we should look at how we can work more closely with the Ministry of Defence."
The wording of the impromptu answer is unsurprisingly looser than the written answer. Interestingly, the first version in which I saw this, reported by Andrew Sparrow’s political affairs blog in the Guardian, was a little different. In that version she said it slightly more forcefully: "Things like peacekeeping absolutely do fall within the ODA definition."
Do they? – that’s the exam question.
The ODA guidelines
The third part of the context is formed by the ODA guidelines. These were agreed in and are safe-guarded by the OECD Development Aid Committee (OECD-DAC), the donor governments’ forum. Donors are self-bound by the guidelines, which define what development aid is and what it covers. And here’s what they say about two areas in which, "The boundary of ODA has been carefully delineated":
- Military aid: No military equipment or services are reportable as ODA. Anti-terrorism activities are also excluded. However, the cost of using donors’ armed forces to deliver humanitarian aid is eligible.
- Peacekeeping: Most peacekeeping expenditures are excluded in line with the exclusion of military costs. However, some closely-defined developmentally relevant activities within peacekeeping operations are included.
What this means is that, as worded, Justine Greening’s answers in Parliament do not disrespect the ODA guidelines that the UK government like others chooses to be bound by. The prepared answer in particular is comfortably within the ‘boundary’ of ODA as defined by the guidelines. The second and impromptu answer is a bit less comfortable because only a small part of peacekeeping is eligible – but some is eligible and that will do.
Peace and development – Links and intricacies
However, it is worth entering a caveat. As readers of this blog and those who follow International Alert‘s work will know very well, I believe it is pretty close to unintelligent and certainly counter-productive to try to isolate peace and security on the one hand from development on the other. Put briefly, there’s no development without peace and only the peace of the graveyard without development. They go together or they just don’t go.
But that’s not the same as saying that all, most or any of the issues covered by the label of security are rightly funded by the budget for ODA.
It is all very well to say, as I do, that peace and development go together, but the relationship between them is more complex and subtle than that quick summary of the case implies. In the same way, good development and peacebuilding both imply building the state – but again there are subtleties that the headline doesn’t capture.
The building of a state can trigger conflict or generate peace depending on how it is done. Strengthening the security forces of the state can be a viable development goal if it is a developmental state and ‘strengthening’ means, inter alia, enhancing the rights of citizens and increasing the openings they have for ensuring their needs for security are met, especially in places where hitherto the forces of the state have been part of citizens’ insecurity.
And further the UK is a major player in development assistance and the government would do well not to muddy its own waters by hinting – or by saying things that some people interpret as hinting – that ODA can be raided to fund military requirements.
It’s not as if the UK is facing growing pressure for funds on the peacekeeping front. It is doing less peacekeeping than for decades past because of commitments in first Iraq and then Afghanistan, and peacekeeping operations have in any case declined in number somewhat in the last few years.
In other words and in brief, there are intricacies of policy in the links between security and development and the needs of people in developing countries are ill-served by allowing UK political considerations to invade the issue.
I suppose that politicians may be a little likely to realise this than the rest of us, but there is a serious risk of political issues being contaminated by politics.
Let me parse that out a bit. Development aid is a political issue both at home and in the way it is provided in developing countries, as well as how it enters into relations between states in the UN and other international forums. How development aid is provided is also a detailed policy issue. Neither those different political aspects nor the policy details are well served if the question starts to be taken over and shaped according to domestic UK political interests and considerations.
But to state the obvious, government is a political operation. So for a government committed to spending relatively generously on aid – only Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Scandinavia have previously reached the 0.7 per cent target, so the UK is joining some pretty rarefied company – what’s the best way to respond to criticism and pressure from some of the government’s own supporters?
Rather than trying to protect ODA by seeming to concede some points to Conservative critics, the government and other supporters of ODA would do better to get into a proper debate about it and try to win the arguments.
Yes – don’t manoeuvre round the sceptics but bring along evidence and arguments and persuade them. From that point of view, take another look at the blog post by Tim Montgomerie, already mentioned, and perhaps at the plea by Bill Gates in the notoriously anti-ODA Mail newspaper that Britain continue its proud record of generosity.
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