We must break out of this “Groundhog Day” debate on aid

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UK Parliament – home of the International Development Select Committee

Contrary to today’s Daily Mail headline, the International Development Select Committee did not actually call for the target of spending 0.7% of aid to be scrapped.  In their response to DFID’s annual report, the Select Committee did argue that the quality of aid spending is more important than the overall quantity. And of course this is true. The last thing that anyone in the development community wants is for a spending target to result in aid being wasted.

But we also know that the 0.7% commitment isn’t just an arbitrary target, but is a promise that has been made to poor communities around the world for many years and which cannot be dismissed lightly. We have a moral responsibility to act which should not be lost in technocratic arguments.

As Tearfund’s CEO wrote in the Huffington Post, we shouldn’t allow the Daily Mail and others to force us into a debate around whether or not to cut the aid target.  We have the privilege of seeing everyday the huge and transformational impact that aid – from both governments and NGOs – has all around the world.  DFID’s own report says that in the last 2 years they have paid for 12 million children to be vaccinated and provided 6 million people with emergency food aid. The International Development Committee don’t question these facts and personally, I can’t think of many better things to spend less than 0.7% of our country’s income on.

But we also can’t just be aid apologists. We know that aid – like all areas of public spending – isn’t always used as effectively as it could be. It is right that we have grown up conversations how best to spend the money, what we’re learning and how to have the biggest impact possible. But to always tie these conversations to the issue of whether to spend the money traps us in a “groundhog day” style debate.

The report criticises the significant increase in DFID money going through multilaterals as they “have high cost and sometimes limited effectiveness” and stresses that DFID bureaucracy shouldn’t prevent them from working with effective local NGOs. At Tearfund, we’re passionate about the brilliant projects that our local partners are doing – from supporting sustainable farming in Malawi and Zimbabwe to holding local government officials to account in India and, it’s great when additional resources from DFID increase their impact.

But we shouldn’t just write off multilateral aid as a legitimate way of spending money as it’s often easier for a developing country government to deal with one multilateral donor than several uncoordinated national donors, and costs accrued there may actually save costs (DFID head count, government staff time in developing countries etc). This kind of debate about the right balance of organisations that aid goes to is the kind I’d describe as helpful.

The report also raises good points about the clarity DFID needs to provide as to which countries it is and isn’t working on, and the need for enough DFID staff to manage the money Imagewell. Again, good points. But these points cannot be excuses for not meeting the 0.7% target.  The promise was initially made 40 years ago and was recommitted to by the UK Government in 2005 and 2010 so there is absolutely no excuse for not having planned for it properly.  As part of the IF campaign we will be doing all that we can to make sure that the Chancellor sticks to the 0.7% target when he makes his budget statement in March because this is the least we owe to the 1 in 8 people around the world who go to bed hungry every night.  While legitimate debates about how we use this money will and should continue, this promise is just too important to delay any longer.

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