Shifting Rhetoric on Aid: Latest Example of David Cameron’s Political Malaise
Originally published on Huffington Post Politics
This year barring any last minute surprises, the Tory-led government will deliver on Labour’s commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas development assistance. This should be a source of national pride with particular credit due to the civil society and faith networks that have campaigned for the UK to achieve this globally agreed target over many years. 2013 is the year when Britain will once again shine a light unto the nations.
This achievement follows on from the tremendous advances made by successive Labour governments between 1997 and 2010. At home, we created DfID as a cabinet-level department, tripled the aid budget, and untied aid from commercial interest. Globally, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown provided leadership which ensured unprecedented debt write off, funding to support the Millennium Development Goals and a compelling vision for Africa’s economic and social development.
Since becoming prime minister, David Cameron has earned cross party respect for defending increases to DfID’s budget on route to achieving the 0.7 commitment. Despite relentless attacks from many of his own backbenchers, some sections of the press and public specticism in an age of austerity, he has consistently argued it is morally right for Britain to honour this commitment to the poorest in the world.
Our criticisms have largely focused on the government’s failure thus far to keep a Tory manifesto commitment to enshrine 0.7 in law. This would create long term stability and ensure future debate can concentrate on how the money is spent, but also by enshrining the link with gross national income permanently link the level of the UK aid to the state of the nation’s economy. We have also been concerned at a lack of cross government working on the wider development issues including trade, climate change and tax policy.
However, in the past fortnight we have seen two deeply cynical interventions which threaten to undermine the UK’s global reputation for progressive development and are symptomatic of a far greater malaise which is eating away at the heart of this increasingly wretched government.
There is no doubt they are a deliberate attempt to address criticism of the unprecedented increase in DfID’s budget which takes effect this year.
Firstly, the prime minister suggested in an interview with the Guardian newspaper that cuts to the defence budget could be reduced by switching aid money to military activities. This grossly exaggerated the potential to switch resources and raised the spectre of the militarisation of aid, which would not only flout international standards but put civilian aid workers in harm’s way.
Secondly, government ‘spin’ that aid would be re-tied to commercial interest ahead of Justine Greening’s speech to the Stock Exchange on 11 March. This was a policy Labour ended in 2001 as it invariably reduced value for money and had little impact on poverty reduction. Labour believes the private sector is central to driving jobs and growth in developing countries. It is also entirely right that British companies should seek to access new and emerging markets, and we welcome the acknowledgement of the 27 CEOs yesterday that aid and business are critical for healthy economies.
However, we are vehemently against tied aid, discredited trickle-down economics and growth which have no focus on either inequality or sustainability.
As I set out in my Post-2015 Speech at the heart of our new approach to partnership with the private sector will be responsible capitalism. Supporting dynamic businesses that are good corporate citizens committed to transparency on profit, taxes, labour standards and sustainability supported by governments through active industrial strategies. Profit and ethics inextricably linked not presented as competing options.
As stated earlier, I believe these latest interventions on aid policy are symptomatic of a deeper malaise at the heart of this Tory-led government.
Through a combination of ‘spin’ and the willing advocacy of his international development secretary, David Cameron has sought to mislead the British people to believe that in the future our aid will be predominantly about strengthening our hard pressed miltary and supporting British business.
These false claims are both wrong and damaging to Britain’s hard earned reputation as a global leader in development. Of course, security and growth are vital if we are to achieve Labour’s explcit objective of ending aid dependency by 2030. But so is our support for many countries to create health and education systems from scratch, vaccinate hundreds of thousands of children against life threatening diseases, improve governance systems, build institutions to collect taxes, support women to have equal rights and enhanced opportunities and develop vibrant civil societies which can help to hold governments to account.
Following the demise of the Big Society and the ‘green blue’ Tories, aid was the last bastion of David Cameron’s claim to have detoxified the Tory brand. However, by abandoning the moral case for aid and seeking to mislead people about its future use, Cameron is revealing how weak he has become. He is in retreat from his right wing backbenchers including an increasingly vocal ‘tea party’ tendency and paying a heavy price for his failure to change his party. It is potentially the greatest irony of all that this failure may yet allow the person who first warned the Tory Party that they were ‘the nasty party’, Theresa May, to seize the mantle of leadership from the prime minister.
Ivan Lewis MP is the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development