One of the real achievements of the coalition government was setting and reaching the target of spending 0.7% of GDP on development aid. UK aid spending has played a significant role in halving the number of people living in extreme poverty and delivering the great improvements in global health and education that have been achieved over the past decade.
Britain’s lead has encouraged others to follow: earlier this year, Germany joined the elite club of countries that had reached the UN-set target. It has enhanced British status and influence across the world. In a report earlier this month, MPs on the cross-party committee on international development concluded, after a lengthy inquiry, that “ODA [official development assistance] spending is in the national interest and is a strong investment contributing to create a more prosperous world, which pays far-reaching dividends including to UK taxpayers at home”.
Yet despite the commitment to global Britain, the Conservative right wants the target dropped. There are reports that aid spending may be siphoned off to boost the defence budget, or to help shelter refugees. The department itself is under threat of merger with the foreign office. On Thursday, the World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, said that the 0.7% figure was “critically, critically important”, and while the bank is a major recipient of UK money, he was saying no more than Microsoft founder Bill Gates said to the Guardian on Wednesday. Mr Gates, who has become a generous and influential figure in the fight against the diseases of poverty, warned that dropping the target would “reduce British influence and cost lives”.
David Cameron’s commitment to international development marked him out – as he intended – from his predecessors. Until then, the pattern in Whitehall was that Labour established an aid department, and the next Tory one dismantled it. It was bold to stick to the pledge – and even write it into law – as the chancellor embarked on a mission to hack back public spending as a share of national income.
However, after the first secretary of state for international development, Andrew Mitchell, there has been a steep decline in departmental weight. The current secretary of state, Priti Patel, often appears proudly sceptical of an idea that is now routinely belittled in principle and denigrated in practice. She fails to rebut claims of waste, and success stories are scarce. Yet the two-year committee inquiry found no evidence that waste was significant, or a consequence of the rapid growth in DfID’s budget. Nor was there evidence that poor or wasteful spending was worse in DfID than any other government department or among international donors; spending was assessed as effective. The MPs recommended that rather than spend less, DfID should simply continue to strive to spend it better.
But good aid needs transparency. Ms Patel’s enthusiasm for using public money to incentivise private investment is not necessarily wrong, but it does make it much harder to assess how well money is spent. In the same way, aid delivered through departments other than DfID is harder to track. Development is difficult; understanding the complexities of doing it well will always be a work in progress. But doing it is both a moral imperative and an exercise in the UK’s national interest.