There is yet another report today (in the Financial Times) that bankbench Conservative MPs want to abandon the Coalition commitment to raise overseas aid to the UN recommended level of 0.7%, and we know many Conservatives are deeply concerned about the pledge (support is much stronger – but not universal – among Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs). So why are the Coalition still pledging the increase, and will they resist the pressure to renege on what was a manifesto commitment of all three parties?
First, the TUC’s view is that the pledge is absolutely right, although there are always judgments to be made on how to spend it. We must help eradicate global poverty because
(a) we can, because overall we are a rich country – and just because the coalition is wrongly cutting domestic spending too much and too soon doesn’t mean we should repeat the folly in the global south;
(b) we should, because there is an element of basic humanity involved in preventing maternal and child mortality, starvation and the likes, and we are in part recompensing regions of the world which fuelled our own growth; and
(c) it is in our own interests – reducing the risks of conflict, increasing the markets for our exports and reducing the risk of outsourcing and undercutting.
The coalition has bound itself to the aid target for several reasons:
(a) the moral imperative does resonate strongly with sections of the right wingh politicians and voters, especially those with religious convictions;
(b) the self-interest associated with conflict and trade; and
(c) because they promised to, in part to escape the ‘nasty party’ image.
As austerity bites ever harder, will those reasons be enough?
On the optimistic side, reneging on a manifesto commitment, if hardly unprecedented, always has costs, even if most Conservative PPCs didn’t agree with the pledge at the time. And the ‘nasty party’ image still hasn’t fully returned, so some in the party will continue to insist on the ‘nice party’ initiatives.
Enlightened self-interest and moral commitment are even stronger reasons for maintaining the pledge. They’re hardly undermined (indeed in some ways are strengthened) by the pressures building up as austerity bites. Even George Osborne knows that to trade your way out of recession, you need to have someone rich enough to trade with, and cuts to police and defence budgets put a premium on preventing external threats.
In the end, though, it will be money that matters most. At the moment, the aid budget ISN’T growing – not this year or next – because Osborne has punted the increase in aid to meet the commitment until the very last minute. That will mean a massive increase in the aid budget (up 33%) in one year, and if the economy is still flatlining or worse, that will be the point when the vultures will swoop and demand that the Coalition reneges on its pledge to the global poor.