In what looks rather like a co-ordinated attack, right-wing vultures are circling the UK overseas aid budget. But not all their criticisms are wrong. The wheels are beginning to come off the Conservative Party’s use of overseas aid to detoxify its brand with swing liberal voters, just as the architect of the policy, now Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, looks to have got on his bike and trashed his political career. The attacks on DFID’s budget do, however, open up the space for a critical debate on how we do international development, and how we could do it better.
To the question: does DFID spend too much, the answer is no. Does it spend it wrong? Yes.
That’s not to say we should give in to the right-wing aid agenda and cut DFID’s budget or abandon the pledge to increase it to 0.7% of GNI. The Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, along with Lord Ashcroft, are leaping from the evidence that some DFID money is poorly spent (a lot of their evidence is anecdotal, adding up to a fairly small proportion of its £9bn annual budget) to the conclusion that the overall budget should be cut. The right-wing argument against aid spending is based on three propositions: (a) that aid doesn’t reduce poverty; (b) that we shouldn’t spend more on aid when we are cutting other public services in the UK; and (c) that we’re wasting the aid spending by spending it wrong.
Actually, aid does reduce poverty, and it tackles some of the worst outcomes of that poverty (some of which are causes too, in the downward spiral that is seen in too many developing countries.) There’s a lot of academic evidence, as well as the arguments of the poor and of what the right-wing press call ‘the poverty lobby’ (as opposed, presumably to the ‘filthy rich lobby’ which is far better funded, far less open and – sadly – often far more successful!) The TUC believes that cutting aid would not improve the lot of poor people around the world, any more than cutting benefits helps the unemployed or disabled here at home, or cutting wages helps workers.
But we share the views of some critics of the aid industry that aid is not the best way to tackle global poverty. We’re backing the Progressive Development initiative, which holds its second meeting this Wednesday, because we believe the time has come to consider whether an essentially charitable, philanthropic approach needs to be replaced by economic justice, good governance and rights. As my latest post suggested, when spending on aid is dwarfed by the sums multinational corporations evade paying in tax to developing countries, it is only rational to suggest that international development would be helped more by tackling corporate tax evasion – although Lord Ashcroft, who for many years famously didn’t pay UK tax by being a non-dom, surprisingly didn’t make that case. Increasing trade and stronger civil societies would also be a major step forwards (DFID under Labour, to be fair, was heading in that direction.)
ICM polling in this weekend’s Sunday Telegraph says that British voters don’t want aid spending to rise while the rest of public expenditure is being slashed. That doesn’t mean we should slash the aid budget: it means we shouldn’t be slashing government spending, as the TUC has argued consistently since the global economic crisis hit. One of our concerns about the Coalition Government – and if truth be told, some British aid agencies – is that they seem indifferent to cutting schools and hospitals in the UK, while backing increases in DFID spending on them overseas.
Much of the media frenzy of the last week has been aimed (rather unusually for right-wing papers, but demagogy does strange things to people’s arguments) at the large salaries paid to consultancy firms like Adam Smith International. You wouldn’t expect the TUC to defend those consultancies, nor the fat cat salaries paid to the consultants and managers. And we don’t! We have been arguing for years that DFID should be employing civil servants to do these jobs (on salaries that are modest compared to the consultancy world), and we share Ian Birrell’s justified anger that:
“the department employs only about 400 more people than when it was established in 1997, although its budget is four times bigger. So to spend the cash cascading into its coffers, it either hands it straight to foreign governments … or relies on an army of charities and private consultants.Spending on consultants is rising fast, up from £348 million three years ago to £513 million today.”
It’s ironic (Labour’s Ivan Lewis suggested another word) that a Conservative-led Department for International Development is being attacked by the right wing for shifting DFID’s spending towards the private sector. But that is precisely, and damagingly, what Andrew Mitchell did, under cover of his support for increasing the overseas aid that was cut under the previous Conservative administration of John Major. Mitchell put a stop to DFID core funding for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and trade unions too. He claimed that in both cases, our proposals were just not technically good enough.
But perhaps he just didn’t like funding “plebs.”