As you’ve probably heard, David Cameron is currently over in the US attending the United Nations General Assembly. Last night he gave a speech at the first meeting of a new high-level panel tasked by Ban-Ki moon, the UN secretary general, with drawing up a new framework for global development after 2015. Most of the talk leading up to it centred around the expectation of him challenging world leaders to honour their promises on aid commitment for developing countries.
Maybe it’s not coincidental that as he again fully committed the UK to spending 0.7% of our national income on overseas aid by 2013 (around £12bn a year), calls have again been coming to reduce that level stating that in our current economic climate we simply can’t afford to give so much away.
Justine Greening, the new International Development Secretary, is apparently examining the Department for International Development’s (DFiD’s) spending “line by line” after it emerged that nearly £500 million was paid to firms working on Third World programmes. The Telegraph also ran an article at the weekend exposing the levels of money that the DFiD is giving to wealthy countries including China, Russia, Brazil and Iceland. The piece makes pretty grim reading alleging that millions of pounds are being given to countries who don’t need our financial support or being put into EU pots which don’t actually use the money for aid purposes.
This perception that aid is being wasted or used ineffectively alongside our country’s economic woes probably explains why a recent ICM poll found that 64% of voters believe the Government is wrong to ring-fence the international aid budget while other departments suffer cuts and even more (70%) believe the planned rise in the foreign aid budget should be scaled back.
Yet despite these problems and the public’s resistance to the UK’s aid commitments, the Government shows no sign of changing its mind. Unlike Nick Clegg’ broken promise on tuition fees, this is one pledge that looks like it will be kept even though in this case many people want to see it broken. In his speech at the UN David Cameron has responded to this criticism:
“The first thing we must do is send a clear message to everyone who signed up to Millennium Development Goals that now is the time to step up and honour those promises.
“And I know there are some who say we can’t afford to do that right now.
“They believe we have to focus on ourselves. And if that means breaking promises, then they’re sorry but it just has to be done. Well I’m sorry but it doesn’t.
“So to those who say we can’t afford to act: I say we can’t afford to wait.”
Sometimes what gets lost in this debate is why the level has been set at 0.7%. Why this magic number? Well, way back in 1969 the Commission on International Development produced a study that recommended developed countries commit 0.7% of their GDP to the assistance of developing countries. A year later the UN General Assembly made this target a commitment by passing Resolution 2626. This commitment was reaffirmed in 2000 when the Millennium Development Goals were drawn up. In 2005 at the G8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, all G8 members from the European Union committed to reaching the 0.7% target by 2015.
The problem for the UN and also consequently for developing countries is that despite these commitments over the years only a very small proportion of developed countries have met this target. Currently this number stands at five as the table below shows:
Even the UK who are one of the more generous countries when it comes to development aid have never actually met the target.
Would it be easier to just admit defeat and decide the goal is too ambitious? What it comes down to is the sort of world we want to live in. 1.3 billion people live below the global poverty line of $1.25 per day. Do we just accept that a large proportion of the world’s population will always live without access to sanitation, healthcare and education, or do we believe that it doesn’t have to be this way?
There are plenty of people who believe it doesn’t including Mr Cameron which partly explains Ban Ki-moon’s decision to appoint him as co-chair of the panel that will advise him on the global development agenda after 2015. The UK government’s firm aid commitment has not gone unnoticed internationally.
If we are to meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goals throwing money at them is never going to be enough, which is why effective use of aid is so important and the misuse of it is a major issue that needs to be addressed. But we can’t let the poor management and waste of some aid money be an excuse to cut back our country’s giving. Maybe too, if the Government was better at explaining just how much good the money we give does and how many lives have been saved and transformed, public opinion might be won round more easily.
David Cameron has described the UK as a Christian country in the past and if the essence of what he means is that we seek to uphold Christian values then providing aid to the poor should be right near the top of our priorities. Protecting the poor and vulnerable is a key biblical theme and that doesn’t mean just those close to you in your own country. In fact most people in our country have a very limited understanding of real poverty. On the few occasions we get a taste of it through events such as Comic Relief we prove how generous we can be when our hearts are touched, so why not let the government do exactly the same thing too? Without going into details, we can afford to meet our 0.7% GDP commitment and we shouldn’t be looking at countries such as the United States who are failing to meet their G8 promise from 2005 and think it’s in any way a good thing to be emulating their failure.
We’ve recently demonstrated how much we dislike it when our politicians break their promises. Are we really now saying it’s ok to do so if it suits us, or as a country do we want to have more integrity than that?
Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses. (Proverbs 28:27)