London (Brussels Morning) Rishi Sunak’s spending review was always en route for a backlash. The chancellor confirmed in his announcement the much lauded target for overseas aid spending target — 0.7 percent of GDP — is to be temporarily reduced to 0.5 percent, angering MPs across the political spectrum.
While this ire isn’t misdirected — we should not only meet commitments but step up efforts to help others counter the COVID-19’s health impacts and its social and economic fallout — keeping the 0.7 target ringfenced is simply the first step. We should also pay attention to how that aid is being spent.
UKAid, is not just aid for aid’s sake, it’s a soft power tool that can benefit us and while that isn’t necessarily bad for the countries who receive donor money, it does little for global poverty when the primary objective of aid spending is to further nationalist agendas.
Recently, the ODI, through its Principled Aid Index, examined donor countries foreign aid spending to pursue their long-term strategic interests. It found more and more donors were sliding down on their scores while using aid for their own nationalist gains and individualist geo-strategic and commercial returns.
The think tank said aid can be used to influence elections, trade deals and arms exports, as well as to pursue nationalist agendas. The latter can be seen in the UK’s decision-making when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson justified merging the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Department for International Development (DfID) to advance the UK’s strategic interests.
Furthermore, the direction of aid spending under the Johnson administration is set for institutional change.
In a controversial report for the Henry Jackson Society, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote a forward applauding the authors — including Conservative MP Bob Seely — for “radical thinking” on UK aid, which included using overseas spending to bolster the UK’s diminished power after it leaves the EU, to counter global flashpoints and attempts to roll back western influence, for example, in post-Soviet states like the Ukraine. In achieving its objective, the report advocated conflating military spending and aid.
In his speech announcing the merger of the FCO and DfID, Johnson equated the need for aid in southern and east Africa with interests in eastern Europe.
“We give as much aid to Zambia as we do to Ukraine, though the latter is vital for European security”, he said.
“We give ten times as much aid to Tanzania as we do to the six countries of the Western Balkans, who are acutely vulnerable to Russian meddling”, he added.
This course is not lost on observers. A review by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact warned the government’s new emphasis on ‘mutual prosperity’ when it comes to aid, risked prioritising the generation of economic and commercial benefits and diluting the main objective of international aid —poverty reduction.
There’s already so much discussion needed in the global development and aid space — about reducing bureaucracy and ensuring cash to communities really empower them to achieve long-term development aims. This journey towards a better aid model will be placed even more on the back foot as the two departments converge, potentially making the whole process much more opaque; as along with DfID will go the International Development Committee and its scrutiny.
What’s more, reducing the aid budget now is a legislative rigmarole. Enshrined in law, reducing the target as a one-time deal isn’t that straight forward. It could need legislation to make that happen and for all that trouble, ministers could be tempted to withstand a little more angst from their peers by scrapping the target altogether. With no benchmark, new rules and a Britain first attitude, just what will our aid money be spent on.