Lib Dems go AWOL on international development

First posted on Left Foot Forward

The Coalition’s Programme for Government saw the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Tory and Lib Dem manifesto pledges on international development.

The Coalition’s Programme for Government saw the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Tory and Lib Dem manifesto pledges on international development. First the good; the Coalition are to continue much of the good work achieved under Labour, keeping the Department for International Development (DfID) as an independent department with cabinet representation, pledging to continue our international leadership in this area, continue debt relief, and sustaining action on the MDGs, including a continued focus on womens’ rights and tackling maternal mortality.

The commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income on overseas aid from 2013 and to enshrine this commitment in law (as Labour had pledged to do) is welcome – although there are concerns around the detail of this, as discussed below.

Furthermore, there is a welcome pledge to make the UK Trade and Investment and the Export Credits Guarantee Department become champions for British companies that develop and export innovative green technologies around the world, instead of supporting investment in dirty fossil-fuel energy production, as campaigned for by People & Planet.

However, whilst these commitments are encouraging, the same question marks that hung over the Conservatives’ manifesto hang over this programme, whilst there is a worrying absence of some highly progressive Liberal Democrat policies. As Left Foot Forward has previously outlined, there are concerns in the NGO community toward the Tories’ proposals to give the British public a vote in how UK aid is spent. The details of how this would work need to be outlined – as any such scheme should certainly not be at the expense of ensuring people in poor countries are in charge of their own development.

On climate change, the lack of any mention of climate finance is deeply worrying. The Conservatives have still refused to guarantee that any aid to help developing impacted by climate change would not be taken from the existing aid budget – whilst the Lib Dems are silent on a clear commitment they made in their manifesto (page 63) to ensure that “adaptation and mitigation measures are financed by industrialised nations on top of existing aid commitments”.

On the Robin Hood tax, the promise to tax banks is welcome but is far from the blueprint championed by the Robin Hood Tax campaign or the Lib Dems’ own pledge (page 62) to “bring forward urgent proposals for a financial transaction tax.”

And then there is the ugly. As Left Foot Forward reported on Tuesday, there is a worry that the promise to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on aid will watered down through creative accounting.

The pledge to “stick to the rules laid down by the OECD about what spending counts as aid” is disingenuous – many NGOs are critical of the OECD’s laws, with organisations such as Aid Watch arguing that many EU Governments count non-aid items as aid in order to inflate their official aid figures. Out of the €50bn (£42bn) officially provided in aid by EU governments, €5bn (£4.2bn) is debt cancellation, €2bn (£1.7bn) are student costs and almost €1bn (£845m) are refugee costs.

Under Labour, 88 per cent of UK aid was spent though DFID. The Labour Campaign for International Development have written to the Chief Secretary of the Treasury to seek his assurance that the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and Home Office are not currently being asked to scrutinise their budgets for items that could be classified as Overseas Development Aid; furthermore, the Conservative manifesto (page 117) specifically pledged to “legislate in the first session of a new Parliament” to enshrine 0.7% in law and yet it was missing from the Queen’s Speech.

On Tuesday, aid campaigner Bono had said:
“The UK’s bipartisan commitment to development, and near fulfilment of its promise, stand out as achievements in these hard times.”
He’s right, but we must be cautious. Much of what is good in this Coalition programme is a continuation of what the last Labour government had already established. The Lib Dems going missing in action is a missed opportunity for some genuinely progressive policies. Many of the new Tory proposals are questionable; and the biggest question of all is whether Britain will meet its promises to the poorest or pull an accountancy trick through rebranding money from other departments as aid.

The coalition in development: a bluer shade of green

First posted on Progress Online as part of Steve’s regular column.

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The Lib Dems have not fought the corner of international development – they are absent from DfID and big ideas such as the Robin Hood Tax have been dropped

When analysing the influence of the coalition partners on their joint programme for international development, we don’t need The Guardian’s brilliant analysis of the coalition colour schemes. Whereas the overall pea-green agreement was deemed in this analysis to be more Liberal than Conservative (based on hue, not policy), the realm of global poverty seems to be true blue territory.

Blue doesn’t mean all bad, but nervousness abounds. Whilst the coalition agreement did promise to bind into law the commitment to provide 0.7 per cent of GNI in aid, and included positive commitments like support for an Arms Trade Treaty, such legislation was conspicious by its absence in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech. This is despite an explicit manifesto commitment from the Conservatives that they would do so in the first session.

DfID do claim they still plan to do this in future legislative sessions, but by falling short at the first hurdle questions are bound to be raised, not just at the Conservatives, but at the coalition’s self-styled ‘good cops’ too.

Lib Dems have long evangelised about development, but by failing to demand a ministerial post – an honour shared with only DEFRA, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Wales Office – it does mean that there is no coalition partner keeping an eye on how aid money is counted and how it is spent.

Worries exist that departments are looking for expenditure to be redefined so that it counts towards the aid budget. Items such as looking after (and even repatriation of) refugees or providing university scholarships to UK institutions are all permissible under loose OECD regulations defining what can count as aid, even if they bear little resemblance to what most people would understand by the term. Creative accounting would help the coalition keep its promise on paper, but it wouldn’t be of much use to poor communities on the ground.

The Lib Dems not only lack any ministerial post, they have also failed to include any of their distinctive policies that could have added a more progressive edge to the coalition agreement. No Robin Hood Tax to stabilise the banks and fund poverty reduction, no clear commitment to crack down on tax havens to tackle corruption and prevent capital flight, and no promise that the funds needed to help countries adapt to climate change will not be taken from the aid budget.

These are potentially big concessions. Climate change funding could dwarf the aid budget if not ringfenced, capital flight can be more debilitating than aid shortfalls, and the Robin Hood Tax could have added a genuinely radical and innovative solution to heal financial fissures at home and abroad.

And nor will the Lib Dems be in a position to ensure the UK’s position in trade deals are fair and progressive, nor demand the new National Security Council does not lead to development policy serving foreign policy aims rather than poverty reduction, nor press for the global leadership role played by successive prime ministers and secretaries of state over the last 13 years.

Which begs the question, why did they not fight a bit harder for the cause of global poverty, and what’s the point of a good cop if you’re not in the interrogation room when the important questions are being asked?

 Steve Cockburn is an anti-poverty campaigner and member of Labour Campaign for International Development