Was Cameron’s announcement on aid to MoD politically astute?

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PM official picture from Number 10 website

I may regret saying this. As the saying goes, the devil is always in the detail. However, I can’t help wondering if today’s “announcement” by Cameron that some more of the aid budget should be spent by the Ministry of Defence might not be such a bad thing.

– Firstly, some aid spend already goes through the MoD and the Independent reports that only around £100m additional money year is being considered.  An amount that can obviously make a big impact providing health, education or water projects. But, actually, not a big percentage of the overall £11 billion aid budget.

-Secondly, he said that spend would be in line with international OECD guidelines, which are reasonably strict on what does and doesn’t count as aid. So while spend on new weapons would be wrong, my understanding is that wouldn’t count. While, say, more support for peacekeeping in DRC, for example, could be a good thing.

– And thirdly, lets face it, Cameron has an uphill struggle to get his own party behind 0.7% commitment. If announcements like this – which perhaps initially sound worse than they really are – help, then maybe it’s a good political call, and the criticism which follows could be part of his political calculation.

That’s not to say I don’t have any concerns. It is going to be hugely important for all of us with an interest – media, charities, the International Development Select Committee and the Independent Commission on Aid Impact –  to keep an eye on what the Government (not just DFID, but MOD, Department for Energy and Climate Change, Foreign Office etc) are spending aid on to make sure it really is in line with the law and is actually reducing poverty.  To give another example, we’ve also recently been worried by £110m of aid classified as climate finance going to a private equity firms for investments which we aren’t sure will go to the countries that need them most.

But, I’m reasonably hopeful we have the mechanisms we need to raise the alarm when concerns are raised and we just need to make sure that we use them. Whilst it’s vital that the #IF campaign keeps up the pressure to make sure that the Chancellor meets the 0.7% commitment, it will also be extremely important that pressure continues after the announcement is made, to ensure that the money is being spent legitimately and is really transforming poor communities.

It would also be wrong to imply that only aid spent by MOD can help promote stability. We know that investment in education, agriculture and in tackling corruption can help build stable societies and promote peace.  But my biggest concern about the announcement is that the MOD may be asked to deliver aid projects rather than just peace keeping. Attempts by military in Afghanistan to “win hearts and minds” by building schools and delivery other community projects were widely criticised for being bad development (no community ownership, badly designed etc) and for putting lives of aid workers at risk by blurring distinctions between humanitarian and military assistance.

A political announcement to gain short term support is one thing, but using aid in a way which is dangerous, doesn’t help the people who need it most or which is against international laws, will just undermine the case for aid. We know that aid can work, does save lives and that the UK Government can have a massive impact by reaching 0.7%. But this is a reminder that campaigning on aid can’t stop when we meet that target, but should be an ongoing – and constructive – dialogue with government.

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