Overseas aid: how the political consensus has become controversial
I’ve written before (several times) about how shaky the Coalition’s commitment to overseas aid is. Now Labour MP Mark Hendricks has introduced a Private Member’s Bill to require that UK Governments meet the UN’s 0.7% GNI target for overseas aid, which creates a trap for the Government and also for the aid community. The Bill is before the House for a Second Reading this Friday, 13 July, and the TUC is urging trade unionists to contact their MPs and urge that they attend and back Mark’s Bill.
What Mark is proposing is, according to the Coalition Agreement, in line with Government policy (indeed, that agreement pledged to legislate in the first Parliamentary term), and whilst International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell has apparently wished Mark luck with the Bill, the message seems to have been along the lines of “best of British”, rather than genuine support. So why are the Government apparently opposed to the implementation of their own policy? And why are development NGOs (with some honourable exceptions) wary of putting significant support behind it?
Andrew Mitchell has told people that he is still committed to legislate to spend 0.7% of UK gross national income on overseas aid, although the commitment has slipped from “within the first Parliamentary term” to “by 2015”. And he maintains that the Government will meet the target of 0.7% in the next financial year (2013-2014), legislation or not. But these promises are looking more and more unbelievable, and refusing to back Mark Hendricks’ Bill is just one more piece of evidence.
Tory MPs are far from united in support of the pledge, and their reluctance is one reason why the Government is unlikely to ask them to back a Labour MP’s Bill on the issue. If the Bill was a Government one, they could be whipped into line (and small scale rebellions – by those few MPs not bothered about their future careers! – would have less impact.) But Private Members’ Bills can be torpedoed by Parliamentary manoeuvres by just a handful of MPs. Even if they were acting against their own Party’s orders, such MPs would make opposition to overseas aid look more like a Tory policy, and Andrew Mitchell has staked his political reputation on protecting overseas aid to make the Tories look more acceptable and less of the ‘nasty party’ in Theresa May’s millstone of a phrase.
Andrew Mitchell’s excuse for breaking the Coalition Agreement pledge (it was hardly ambiguous) is that there has not been Parliamentary time for a Government Bill, which is the point of Mark Hendricks’ Private Members’ Bill: it offers the Government a way of providing such time without eating into their own. So if Andrew Mitchell doesn’t take up the offer, it undermines his own excuse.
So, Mark Hendricks has put Andrew Mitchell in a difficult position: support the Labour MP’s Bill and risk Tory identification with hostility to overseas aid, or oppose the Bill and risk Tory identification with hostility to overseas aid. He probably hopes that the Private Members’ Bill will just go away quickly and quietly (that’s not unknown): politics is about making choices, not having them made for you!
But that’s where the overseas aid charities get dragged in. You’d think that they’s be falling over themselves to support a Bill that does exactly what they demanded of all the major parties at the last election, which would cement overseas aid levels in the UK for the foreseeable future, and guarantee the money that funds their objectives. Well, er, up to a point. They will no doubt all express support for the Bill. But will they mobilise their supporters (many of whom voted for the Coalition parties at the last election, and did so happy in the knowledge that they were, just like Labour, committed to overseas aid) to push Coalition MPs to back Mark’s Bill?
Probably not. They know that the Bill sets a trap for Andrew Mitchell, and, well, he is the Secretary of State that they currently have to deal with, and who currently decides how UK aid money is spent – including how much goes to fund the projects of each overseas aid charity. I’m not suggesting they’ve been bought by this relationship: many of the organisations concerned have spoken out against various elements of Government international development policy in the last two years, and they have lobbied publicly and privately for things Andrew Mitchell doesn’t necessarily want.
But now they feel like they’re being made to make a similar choice to the one facing Mitchell himself. Do they back the Bill which is in line with their own policy, and annoy the Government, or quietly let the Bill be defeated, and look to both Labour and their own supporters as if they put a relationship with the current Government ahead of their policies and the overseas aid pledge itself?
Here’s the important bit, aside from all these political shenanigans. The case for legislating on this issue is not about party advantage or image-making. It is because, even if aid is not the only or even the best way to promote development and tackle poverty, it saves lives, and less aid is worse than more aid. Requiring the UK Government to keep pledges politicians have been making regularly since 2005 (but not yet fulfilled) makes aid budgets inviolable, and allows developing country governments to plan expenditure rather than await each annual UK Budget before committing to action just twelve months or less ahead.
It is right to legislate to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid, so the TUC supports any Bill to that effect.