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Has the Coalition got it right on international aid?

The Queen’s Speech

Last week’s Queen’s Speech was greeted as a damp squib by commentators.  The most contentious issues on the agenda for this parliamentary session look set to be Lords reform and the government’s plan (or lack thereof, according to the critics) for kick-starting the economy.

But the Queen’s Speech also raised another important issue that deserves our attention – how committed the government is to keeping its promise to tackle global poverty.

The speech confirmed the Coalition’s commitment to increase spending on overseas aid to 0.7% of national income by 2013, but left out the promised bill to enshrine this commitment in law.

Aid debate

We hosted a debate on 15 May to tackle the contentious issue of increasing aid spending whilst domestic budgets are cut.

A distinguished panel of speakers watched our recent aid film and debated the Coalition’s aid policy.

They were Lord Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats; Tim Montgomerie, editor of ConservativeHome; Baroness Glenys Kinnock, Labour’s spokesperson for international development in the Lords; Philip Davies, MP for Shipley and member of the influential 1922 Executive Committee of backbench Conservative MPs.

In the blue corner…

Philip Davies argued that the UK simply cannot afford to increase spending on aid, and that aid entrenched welfare dependency overseas – something that developed country governments are trying to tackle at home.

He also called into question aid to India, given its booming economy, and described the 0.7 legislation as “the ultimate in gesture politics”.

In the yellow corner…

Paddy Ashdown described the aid commitment as “one of the very best things this Coalition has done,” offering three reasons – first, that UK leadership in international development enhances our global standing; second, that it is morally right not to balance the books on the backs of the poor; and third, that as poverty and access to resources is one of the big drivers of conflict, it is in Britain’s national interest to increase spending on aid.

In the red corner…

Next up, Glenys Kinnock chastised the government for failing to place the aid commitment on the statute book and thus make it much more difficult for future government to renege on the 0.7 promise.

She made the case for aid as a “smart and savvy” investment, drawing from our recent report to point out that those countries in sub-Saharan Africa that received the most aid over the last decade also made the most progress in child well-being.

Back in the blue corner…

Finally, Tim Montgomerie argued that we should be humanising aid and telling specific stories about what it achieves in order to bring the public onside. He quoted polls of ConservativeHome readers which showed that whilst 68% said that the UK should cut aid and redirect it to the defence budget, 79% agreed that spending £2.22 on vaccinating ten children from polio was taxpayers’ money well spent.

And the winner is?

This debate will no doubt continue over this Parliament and beyond.

For my part, I believe it’s important to give the government real credit for sticking to its aid commitments in these tough economic times, when many in the press and on the backbenches are vocally opposed.

Now that the UK has made this important commitment to the world’s poorest people, I’d like to see us go a step further and put our commitment into law.  We often call on poor country governments to be more accountable and to honour their commitments. Legislating our aid commitment is an opportunity for the British government to lead by example.

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