This appeared to suggest the law could be re-examined.
Indeed the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, said that commitment to the target requires “moral courage.” In the current election campaign, we saw aid pledges being used as counterpoint to spending pledges made by the political parties. For example, the plan by the Liberal Democrats to raise income tax by 1p to pay for the NHS was contrasted by journalists to their commitment to the 0.7% target, with the implication being cut aid to keep taxes low.
The 2015 Treasury Policy Paper “UK aid: tackling global challenges in the national interest” highlights the importance of national interest in aid spending.
Part of the national interest narrative is reflected in shifts in the ODA in the budget away from DfID to other departments, with a quarter of the aid budget (£3.5 billion) being spent outside DfID in 2016. We also see increased use of cross-government funds, such as the Prosperity Fund and Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). Consequently we can identify an increased focus on security and the private sector,
While poverty reduction programmes and goals certainly remain important, much of the new energy and investment of the Conservative aid strategy has been in stimulating trade and private sector-led development. In a recent PQ paper, we argued that there is a clear narrative that Brexit will accelerate the trend to utilise aid to secure trade deals, given the need for the UK to re-focus its foreign and trade policy away from the EU.
There is also an option to increase the volume of aid devoted to business investment. This would fit with the proposal from DfID to increase the support the government can give to CDC, the UK development finance institution from £1.5bn to £6bn.
Given the amount of pressure the government faces to maintain 0.7 percent GNI aid spending, some changes in how that aid is used are inevitable. The focus on fragile states in the DfID strategy inevitably links development and security more closely. However, that does not mean security should replace poverty reduction as the focus of UK aid nor should aid include military spending. The changing nature of aid modalities towards technical assistance may mean that the private sector is best placed to provide the knowledge. However, that should not mean the private sector is always the best partner. Supporting refugees is important but diverting aid to fund the cost of hosting these refugees or reclassifying these costs as aid will weaken UK aid.
The 2017 Conservative Manifesto reinforced the view that what the UK classes as aid is likely to change post election. It states that whilst they will maintain the 0.7% commitment, they will work with like-minded countries to change the aid rules. The next line is telling; ‘If that does not work, we will change the law to allow us to use a better definition of development spending, while continuing to meet our 0.7 per cent target’.
Brexit puts increased focus on the UK’s ability to promote its soft power globally and DfID has considerable experience in the area. DfID is a well-respected government department both within the UK and internationally. DfID should therefore not be restricted in carrying out its core work, to reduce poverty, by growing pressure to act in the UK’s national interest. Clearly an aid policy which is supported by the British people and works for the UK is politically expedient but the UK has a proud record on aid and it is vital that nothing should negatively impact upon this record at this crucial time in British foreign policy.
Simon Lightfoot is Senior Lecturer in European Politics at the University of Leeds.
Emma Mawdsley is Reader in Human Geography and Fellow of Newnham College, University of Cambridge.
Balázs Szent-Iványi is Lecturer in Politics & International Relations / Deputy Director Aston Centre for Europe, Aston University.
An earlier version of this blog was first published by the Policy Space.
You can read the full PQ article here.