The argument about whether overseas aid money can be spent on the military seems to be kicking off again. Indeed, it seems not only to have started up but to be institutionalised in negotiations between the UK Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development.
Cuts and a ring fence
OK, the MoD and DFID are talking to each other in ‘a working group of officials and military personnel’ but insiders have apparently to the two sides being miles apart, which is the language used for negotiations between adversaries.
With the MoD under enormous budget pressure and overseas aid ring fenced against cuts, and with the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid set to be fulfilled this year while the military continue to downsize, it’s hardly surprising that a spat is unfolding within Whitehall. And in politics, this is also a divisive issue within the coalition, with many Conservatives opposing the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for 0.7, as I’ve previously noted. And, of course, the NGOs are circling their wagons, insisting that every penny of ODA is spent on helping the world’s poor.
Before the heat gets the way in the light, we could try for a little clarity. There are guidelines, agreed by the OECD Development Assistance Committee, by which the government is bound, as it has repeatedly stated. They’re called guidelines but regard them as rules.
The most relevant bits say as follows:
- 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.
Are we clear? Collapsing the text a bit “No military services” may be paid for by ODA except “using donors’ armed forces to deliver humanitarian aid.”
trying it on
So if one part of the UK government wants to charge another part for flying in aid in the wake of an earthquake or in the midst of a war, it may do, and it may count that internal transfer as part of ODA. Further, some “Closely defined developmentally relevant activities” are legitimately part of ODA, such as the role military personnel take in security sector reform or in disarming and demobilising former combatants after civil war.
However, broader peacekeeping and conflict prevention tasks employing the armed forces are not chargeable as ODA.
The truth is that the military are not going to find many of their activities – and none of the really big ticket items – that can be covered by ODA while sticking to the rules. The charge that rather desperately, under heavy financial pressure, and used to more lavish treatment under the previous Labour government, the MoD is casting around for any alternative to another round of cuts and, in that mood, is trying it on with the aid budget, as senior Lib Dem Sir Menzies Campbell MP has said.
Getting the aid through, yes. Some other very specific activities, yes. For the rest, no. And the proposal that DFID should pre-pay for flights on military aircraft probably won’t wash either – or would only stand a chance of washing if the MoD would give back unused cash far enough before the end of the financial year for it to be recycled through the aid budget. Far easier, I would have thought, just to pay when you go. An if the MoD response is that then they might not have the aircraft and aircrew available, DFID or the aid NGOs would have to charter flights from somewhere else.
call it off
The MoD and a number of Conservative politicians who have eyed the DFID budget (which is still only about a third or less of the MoD’s spending) and have raised expectations among aid sceptics that the money could fund activities they find more congenial.
Frankly, they have raised the stakes over a prize that – unless rules are actually broken – will turn out to be really rather small. However much the MoD manages to charge for flights, it’s not going to solve their budget problems.
Development Secretary Justine Greening and her officials can make sympathetic and cooperative noises but, again on condition rules are respected, they neither need nor can do much to help. So the engine of debate will roar on but the gears of policy won’t be engaged.
In the course of it, as generals fall into long-outdated stereotypical mode and harrumph and snort about humanitarian aid, the MoD risks making itself look somewhere between ridiculous and callous, chasing hard after not very much at the expense of doing good. My advice: call it off. Now.