Is the UK Aid budget under threat from Conservative reforms?

A recent opinion article by Zoe Williams highlighted the dubious spending of the UK Aid budget on private, for-profit investments in developing countries which masquerade as projects in the best interests of the most vulnerable in society. Luke Humphrey investigates the Conservative Party policy on the UK Aid budget and what it means for the future of UK Aid.

In the aftermath of the shocking 2017 General Election result, several Conservative manifesto pledges were dropped from the Queen’s speech. The Conservative pledge toward the 0.7% overseas aid commitment is confusing at the time of writing this, with disapproval of the policy from many in the party such as Nigel Evans MP and even Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond, who suggest a review of the aid budget in 2020. What is neglected from discussions about the Conservatives pledge on UK aid spending is a rethinking of what kind of projects fall under UK aid spending.

The 2017 Conservative pledge differed from that of the other mainstream parties in that it not only committed to spending 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on overseas aid, but it also stated that the party would seek to change how overseas aid spending was defined, ultimately altering what the UK can spend aid on. Currently, the definition of what countries can spend their aid budget on in developing countries is defined by the OECD/DAC, who came up with it in 1972. However, this definition is now considered by the Conservatives as outdated and unsuitable for the development and political challenges of today.

According to Conservative MP and Member of the International Development Committee Pauline Latham who spoke at a recent Contemporary UK Development Aid Conference in Leeds, there are several parts of the OECD/DAC definition which have become obsolete and do not fit what is now needed in development spending. Despite acknowledging that parts of the definition need to be edited, removed and added to, Latham could not reference a single component of the existing aid definition that desperately needed changing under the Conservatives proposals.  Similar to the  idea of  Tory MPs riding rough-shod over the rewriting of the Human Rights Act, the idea that a group of MPs can switch around and adapt the definition of aid for their own purposes is worrying, as is the lack of clarity about what would change.

DfID Field Visit to Somali Region in 2017| UNICEF Ethiopia

There is an on-going debate across Whitehall about how much overseas aid spending should be in the national interest , and subsequently directly benefit the UK government.. In October of last year, Conservative MP and Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel indicated that the UK aid budget under the Conservatives would be  more focused on benefiting the UK , arguing that we need to have an aid budget that “works in our national interest”. In an exclusive interview with Development in Action, ex-International Development Secretary and Labour MP Hilary Benn claimed that the UK aid budget “ is morally right, but it is also in our self-interest”. This question over the balance between the national interest and the interest of the poorest and most vulnerable in recipient developing countries is likely to spill over into the reframing of what falls under aid spending.

Considering the emphasis on reigniting relationships with the Commonwealth and African Caribbean Pacific group  (ACP)  states post-Brexit, we can begin to deduce what exactly aid spending might focus more on, according to the Conservative’s definition, despite the lack of clarity from the party themselves. Under the current definition, aid cannot be spent directly on facilitating and sweetening up trade deals. However, Priti Patel, among other Conservative MPs, has hinted at an aid for trade scheme which could benefit the trade negotiations led by the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox MP. So, it seems likely that aid spending on trade will be much more relaxed in the Conservative proposals for the new aid definition. This raises questions over what exactly the UKs aid priorities will look like over the next few years.

As the country moves closer to finalising   Brexit negotiations, will we see a move towards trade for aid over other priorities such as meeting the SDGs? Or will these changes in definition only seek to update the OECD/DAC definition by introducing new rules on more recent issues such as FGM/C, Climate Change and outbreaks of diseases such as Ebola and Zika? One thing is for sure, with the minority government, any definition will have to be wholly agreed upon by all Conservative and DUP members if it stands any chance of passing into the House of Lords, which will also have its own set of challenges to the Conservative party, as has been proven on controversial issues such as tax credits and the powers of parliament over final Brexit decisions.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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