The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee has encouraged the Coalition Government to break the promises made to the electorate by both coalition parties, and reiterated in the coalition agreement, to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on overseas aid, and to legislate to make that commitment law. The TUC has warned consistently that the Government’s pledge might be broken. It would be a further breach of trust with the electorate, following on from student fees and no top-down reorganisation of the NHS.
But we, like the development NGO umbrella group BOND, also think it would be disastrous for poor people across the developing world. In the light of criticisms of the 0.7% pledge made from the left as well as the right (including War on Want’s John Hilary on the Guardian website last week), I think it’s timely to explain why.
The first argument is about whether a specific volume of aid makes a major contribution to fighting poverty. The House of Lords describes the 0.7% pledge as an arbitrary figure, and of course many targets could be described thus: like the 48-hour week, or 70mph speed limits, there are reasons why the figure has been arrived at, but it wouldn’t make a huge amount of difference if it was varied a bit.
However, it doesn’t take much imagination to recognise that if the 0.7% target was abandoned domestically or globally, the result wouldn’t be that more money would be spent on overseas aid. Scrapping the target – albeit unmet by any major economy (although the better organised northern European fringe has managed) over the 40 years since its adoption or the 12 years since it became central to the Millennium Development Goals – would simply provide an excuse to spend less than is spent now.
Trade unionists in the global south – along with other southern civil society organisations – consider the pledge to be an important commitment to redistribution of wealth from the richer north to the poorer south, and abandoning the pledge on the basis that something better will replace it would be met with sardonic laughter. It would of course also make the same mockery of international agreements, like the Gleneagles G8 pledges on aid volume, that the coalition is making of manifesto commitments.
John Hilary, of course, is not arguing from these malign and hypocritical motives. He argues, with justification, that aid is not the only answer, nor even the best, and that aid can be delivered in ways which make societies dependent on it (but it can also be delivered in ways which don’t). I absolutely agree with him that to eradicate global poverty we need fundamental change in the economic system of global capitalism, including for example a stronger role for trade unions and collective bargaining. The House of Lords committee – and MPs right and left – make a similar case for the importance of expanding global trade as a way to overcome poverty.
But holding John Hilary’s position is no more inconsistent with support for the 0.7% pledge than believing in a fundamental shift in power and wealth in the UK is inconsistent with supporting universal child benefit, or working family tax credits. Direct transfers of resources play a vital part in addressing inequality globally as they do domestically, and of course a lot depends on how aid is spent: providing Governments with the cash to buy arms is considerably less pro-poor than using it to develop a national health system!
So, there are indeed better ways to make poverty history than aid, and the way governments deliver aid can be improved. But breaking promises made and cutting existing, inadequate aid budgets is not the way forward.