Twenty-four mostly household name development agencies – including the TUC – have written to the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister calling on them to fulfill the Coalition agreement to enact in law the commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid. Though the text is intensely polite and bends over backwards to lavish frankly unmerited praise on them over aid policy (several of us had to hold our noses to sign) it is the first time that the aid community has been willing to call the Government out on this possible breach of promise. But aid agencies are getting desperate to hang on to the Coalition’s commitment to aid, just as it looks like it is going to fade away as the economic outlook worsens. The TUC has never been convinced that the Coalition would implement this promise, but it would give us no pleasure to be proved right, which is why we swallowed and signed up.
It’s commonplace to recall that all three major parties stood on manifestoes pledging this legislation at the last election – possibly the high water mark of political commitment to expenditure on aid since the 2005 Gleneagles G8 in the year of Make Poverty History. It was an existential commitment for Labour, and Liberal Democrats were also widely considered genuinely committed. There was a consensus, too, that then Tory spokesperson Andrew Mitchell was personally committed. But it was just as commonly believed that the Conservative leadership had adopted the commitment as an emblem of David Cameron’s strategy of de-toxifying the nasty party brand. It is therefore significant that the aid agency letter is addressed to the Prime Minister and Deputy PM, rather than Mitchell.
The commitment to legislate in the first Parliamentary session is no longer in doubt – it has clearly been broken, although the line now is that the legislation has only been delayed. The perception is that, if the commitment itself hasn’t been sidelined, Andrew Mitchell certainly has. And there are increasing fears that Conservative aid policy is reverting to type – a mixture of patrician philanthropy and an oiler of the wheels of commerce: witness the allegation that Andrew Mitchell is maintaining aid for India solely to encourage arms deals. If true, this would be worse than the Pergau Dam scandal that created the toxic Tory aid image.
So ActionAid, Cafod, Christian Aid, Oxfam, Save the Children, Tearfund along with Age UK, Unicef UK, World Wildlife Fund and the TUC have gone public to ask the Coalition to re-commit to what was once a consensus among politicians but now looks more and more like a radical demand for public spending on global public goods in an era of austerity.