For months, I have been warning that the coalition government may break its pledge to raise overseas aid spending to the UN target of 0.7% of gross national income (GNI), and concern is growing among aid agencies and politicians. The House of Lords have offered the coalition a way out by arguing that the overseas aid pledge should be abandoned. One thing that the Government could do to quiet fears would be to fulfill a subsidiary pledge to put the promise of 0.7% GNI into legislation, but that pledge hangs in the balance.
Next month, the second Queen’s Speech of the coalition government will indicate whether that pledge will be fulfilled ahead of the deadline for meeting the target of 2013. But Ministers have been toning down their language on the pledge to legislate. The Conservative Party manifesto promised that the legislation would be enacted in the first Parliamentary term, a pledge not repeated word for word in the coalition agreement (not that the Liberal Democrats disagreed with the Conservative pledge), but already broken. Labour’s experienced and canny shadow international development secretary Ivan Lewis has written to his opposite number pressing him on the issue.
There is an argument to be had over whether we should spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid, and about whether aid is the best way to make poverty history. But there have to be very good arguments for abandoning a manifesto promise in this way, and the coalition simply hasn’t made that case. If they break the pledge, however, the role it played in Conservative Party strategy – to detoxify their brand and convince liberally-minded voters that they were in favour of tackling the moral blot on humanity of global poverty – will begin to fail. The nasty party charge will be back.