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Britain’s soft power should be used to set, not shatter, global aid standards

One of the least remarked upon (but most important) elements of British soft-power is the global brand of our civil servants. Particularly those who live in airless rooms negotiating everything, from UN Security Council resolutions to the accounting practices which determine what counts as aid.

The people tasked with the latter have a formidable reputation, but it’s on the line next week in Paris as the UK prepares to enter global negotiations on the rules governing aid spending.

As a global community, we’ve set ourselves the ambitious target of eradicating global poverty by 2030. We simply will not meet this target without significantly increasing and reforming aid. Here at Save the Children, we are incredibly committed to changing aid so it works harder to save children’s lives and deliver value for the taxpayer (you can read more about our ideas in our recent Next Generation Aid report).

A surefire way to make sure it doesn’t serve these important objectives, is letting there be a free-for-all on what counts as aid.

That’s why Britain always abides by international accounting rules, set by the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD – made up of 30 of the world’s richest countries – about what can be marked as aid.

These rules don’t determine what countries can and can’t spend money on, they simply say how it should be described, so that taxpayers in different countries (including those sending the money and those receiving it) know that if something is marked as ‘aid’ then it really is aid.

On Monday, the DAC (including representatives from Britain) will come together to agree an update to these international accounting rules. The conversations at these ‘high-level meetings’ (HLM) are always tricky, and plagued by disagreements and competing domestic interests. After a fraught 18 months, the conversation taking place in Paris next week will be no different. With this in mind, here is some advice for both the UK and other DAC members on how they can put aside their differences in the best interests of the poor.

But first, a recap – what can we expect next week?

The DAC, by setting standards and rules on aid spending, ensures that all the money which is badged as overseas aid has the highest possible impact on fighting poverty, saving lives and promoting development. These rules are consensus based, and once agreed, all DAC members must comply with them.

Since 2014, DAC rules on what should or should not count as official aid have been reformed to take better account of our rapidly changing world – including updates to spending on refugee resettlement, peace and security, and the use of private sector loans.

The next HLM is a crucial one; it will hammer out further details on these reforms and also discuss how to deal with recent environmental catastrophes such as Hurricane Irma, which devastated many small Caribbean islands.

The issue of small island states is perhaps the most contentious issue on the table, and has certainly been a controversial topic here in the UK. Many of these small islands are British overseas territories. Britain has rightly rushed to help the people whose homes and livelihoods have disappeared, but hasn’t been able to count this relief as official aid as these islands are above the income threshold. The British government is seeking to challenge this – threatening a sacred tenet of aid rules: that only the poorest countries are eligible.

Our advice to the UK Government

On Tuesday, International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, gave evidence to the International Development Committee – the parliamentary body that scrutinises UK aid. She made a powerful and unequivocal commitment to working within the rules-based system.

While not everyone is happy with the Britain’s stance on small island states, the approach set out by Priti Patel is exactly that which the UK should follow next week.

Britain is a global leader in development – but this leadership position is only maintained because of our unrivaled ability to bring others with us, and to raise the standards of the other countries we work with. This reputation will shatter if the UK does not protect the consensus-based decision-making approach next week. Any threat to redefine the rules unilaterally risks undermining aid’s impact, value for money and Britain’s hard-won decades-long credibility.

The DAC’s value is that it drives shared standards and norms that we are all held accountable to. Is it frustrating to negotiate with 35 other countries? Absolutely. But this approach means we are all pulling in the same direction towards that shared goal of poverty eradication.

Britain has always led the way in putting poverty at the heart of aid, and this leadership is recognised and applauded around the world. It would be reckless in the extreme to risk our standing – and the impact of our generosity – to play to one media cycle here at home.

That’s why in all reform proposals, development impact and poverty reduction must be the guiding principle – and clear safeguards to this effect must be built in. British officials have the experience to negotiate this outcome and British politicians have the clout. If they pull in the same direction next week, Britain can put its soft power to hard work.

Our advice to other DAC members

Consensus requires pragmatism. We encourage other countries to think outside the box on the reforms the UK is seeking around disaster relief in small island states.

Britain should always help its overseas citizens, but in normal circumstances aid money should not be used to do this. Yet catastrophes such as Irma provide an understandable rationale for looking at whether the rules are fit for purpose, and whether certain exemptions should apply.

It is important that multilateral systems are flexible enough to deal with immediate catastrophes, but rigid enough to ensure the compliance and accountability of its members.

The HLM is the latest test for our much-beleaguered multilateral system. A pragmatic but principled approach from all attendees next week will help the global community pass this test, and strengthen our collective power to defeat poverty. Next week’s meeting might be high level, but it is not high profile.

Nonetheless, aid watchers will be looking closely at the outcomes and we will report back next week.

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