One answer is that we were promised one. Both Labour and Conservatives promised in their 2010 manifestoes that they would introduce legislation to enshrine spending 0.7% of Gross National Income on overseas aid, and the Coalition Agreement committed to deliver such legislation in the first session of Parliament. Politicians should – other things being equal – keep their promises, and there has been no real reason why this legislation has not already been brought forward. With all three main parties in favour, legislation should not be a difficult or time-consuming project.
And yet the Government is now promising only to legislate by the end of the Parliament, as if this is likely to be the top of their list of priorities in the last days before the next General Election. So, the TUC is backing an attempt by Labour MP Mark Hendricks to put the legislation on the statute books through a Private Members’ Bill. It will be debated in the House of Commons on Friday 1 March, but Private Members’ Bills face enormous problems getting parliamentary time, so the TUC is also calling on the International Development Secretary Justine Greening to give it that time.
Of course everybody knows why the Government are not proceeding with this legislation: it’s tremendously unpopular with the right-wing of the Conservative Party, and they’ve already been forced to swallow gay marriage, Liberal Democrat vetoes on issues like boundary reform and so on. As David Cameron’s wobble yesterday over whether the international development budget should be partly switched to defence showed, the Government is very nervous about attacks on aid spending from the right.
The Government gets credit (over and over again) for committing to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid, but they don’t want to tie their hands by actually enshrining it in law. So, here again are the key reasons why legislation would be useful. Such a commitment would:
- protect the ODA budget from cuts in future years, especially if the Coalition’s current plans for cutting government expenditure are extended even further into the future;
- provide multilateral agencies and developing country governments with the assurance of stable funding over the medium to long term, allowing them to plan more effective spending plans;
- encourage other countries to meet the UN target themselves (none of the other rich G8 countries have met the target yet, although some other northern European economies have); and
- demonstrate once and for all the UK’s commitment to abide by promises which were made decades ago and have been regularly repeated, but not yet fulfilled.
We don’t believe that overseas aid volumes are the be-all and end-all. We believe that international development is the important thing, rather than aid payments themselves. And we acknowledge that economic growth, tackling tax evasion, addressing inequality and boosting remittances can play a bigger role in making poverty history than aid. But like social security benefits, direct cash transfers are a vital element in the short-term fight against poverty. There ought to be a law about it…