Out and proud

Ray CollinsRay Collins on why it’s time for UK parliamentarians to champion aid to developing countries

As we approach the end of a week’s worth of debates on the government’s new legislative programme, one issue notable by its absence was the commitment to meet the UN’s target of spending 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on aid, and to legislate for this by 2013. 

It is an issue on which there is cross party consensus, starting with the commitment we made when still in government, supported on by the current one – and which in fact appeared in the Coalition Agreement. The unfilled gap in the Queen’s speech is therefore all the more curious.

An argument has been put that legislating for the commitment is unnecessary as long as we meet the target. Well, I can’t put my own response to this better than Andrew Mitchell, the former International Development Secretary, who said last March: “It takes it beyond doubt. And also we and the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party all made clear at the time of the general election that we would legislate. It takes it out of politics. On the whole, politicians should do what they say they are going to do.”

UK aid works. Every year it helps raise more than 3 million people out of poverty and gets millions of children into school. In 2012 alone, it stopped 2.7 million mothers and children from going hungry and vaccinated 12 million children against life threatening diseases. But rather than make the case that the 0.7% commitment is the right thing to do (both from a global social justice and long term national interest perspective), David Cameron is putting internal Tory Party interests above giving leadership on the issue.  And in recent weeks, we’ve seen off the record briefings and ad hoc policy announcements, all designed to appease his right-wing opponents. From the suggestion that UK aid will be used to replace cuts to the defence budget and promote Britain’s trade interests, to ending our support to South Africa.

The latter was originally spun as a decision agreed by the South African government, when this was patently untrue. Coming three days before the local elections, it revealed that Mr Cameron is happy to put a media headline before our foreign policy interests, the needs of South Africa’s poor, and the UK’s relationship with a country central to progress in the wider world. 

The critics of legislation also ignore the fact that by making permanent the link between 0.7% and GNI, we would be ensuring our aid contribution will always be related to the health of our economy. 

In an increasingly interconnected world, the fortunes of people in the UK are linked to the fortunes of those in developing countries. Untapped potential in the latter represents lost customers, lost trade and, ultimately, lost economic growth. Investing in effective development means new markets for our companies. As aid is used to lift more people out of poverty and provide those countries with opportunities to enter international markets, people here will have expanded markets as new companies develop and consumers have increased disposable income. An estimated £20bn boost to our economy, according to the CBI. 

Effective aid, targeted at fragile and conflict affected states, can assist in averting security threats and instability. With 43% of the world's population under 25 and concentrated in some of the world's poorest nations, we can provide better life chances to those who would otherwise face a future with little or no prospects 

This is an important moment, and it’s time for all parliamentarians – whether in government or opposition – to ‘come out’ and be proud of UK aid and what it achieves.

Lord Ray Collins of Highbury is Shadow Minister for International Development in the Lords

Published 15th May 2013

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