Has the UK coalition government lived up to its pledges on international development? We look at its performance so far
This week, the UK government published its audit of coalition pledges (pdf), including on international development (chapter 18). Perhaps not surprisingly, the government paints a rosy picture. We look at the main points in the chapter and scratch away some of the gloss.
In its 2010 election manifesto, the Conservative party promised to enshrine into law a commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid in the first session of a new parliament. But the legislation has still not been tabled, despite repeated pledges. Andrew Mitchell, then the development secretary, said last year the public would not find it palatable in the current economic climate for an aid bill to be pushed through. The government is expected to meet the 0.7% target this year, but weaker than expected economic growth means this percentage will be worth less in cash terms, which has forced the Department for International Development (DfID) to reassess its programmes.
Encouraging other countries to fulfil their aid commitments
Difficult to assess this one as there doesn’t seem to be much evidence. Certainly, David Cameron’s appointment to the UN high-level panel to discuss what comes after the millennium development goals (MDGs) in 2015 will present an opportunity for leverage. But with Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures last year showing a drop in aid flows for the first time in years, the UN reporting a decline in progress on developing a global partnership (part of the MDGs), and AidWatch concluding 2012 to be a “lost year” of aid effectiveness in the EU, the coalition will have its work cut out. Clearly more encouragement needed.
Achieving the MDGs
The coalition has backed its commitments to reduce maternal and infant mortality with some cash. Health and education are priority areas for UK bilateral aid. Reproductive, maternal and newborn health are expected to account for more than 60% of DfID’s global health funding (and the UK hosted a family planning summit and committed more than £500m over eight years to fund more access to contraception). However, DfID is reducing its bilateral funding for HIV and Aids programmes by almost a third, from £59.9m to £41m up to 2015, channelling money through multilateral organisations instead.
Using aid budget to support local democratic institutions
In April last year, the UK Independent Commission on Aid Impact (Icai) said UK aid for overseas elections had failed to deliver long-term benefits. It said DfID – which has spent £197m supporting elections in 26 developing countries over the past decade – should rely less on UN agencies to provide support for overseas voting and instead enable countries to run their own elections.
DfID is embroiled in legal action over the villagisation programme in Ethiopia, a major recipient of UK aid. An Ethiopian farmer has started legal action against DfID, claiming he was forcibly evicted from his farm in Gambela. The legal firm Leigh Day & Co has taken up his case, arguing that DfID money is linked to the abuses through its Protection of Basic Services funding in the region. The department has also been accused of not doing enough to investigate human rights abuses in other areas of the country.
Transparency in aid
DfID often reminds us of its commitments to transparency and the praise it has won for being the first country to publish aid information to the International Aid Transparency Initiative’s standard data format. However, critics say the department’s efforts to publish more of its spending data don’t go far enough.
In December, DfID was accused by the shadow international development secretary, Ivan Lewis, of “breathtaking arrogance and contempt for transparency” over its refusal to release the findings of an inquiry into its use of private consultants. A datablog suggested DfID’s annual reports were among “the worst of the worst” of those from UK government departments, with “completely impenetrable” Excel tables.
DfID works essentially as a commissioning agency, using many contractors and sub-contractors to carry out its work, so until these groups also open their books it won’t be clear where exactly UK aid money goes.
Giving British people a say
In 2011, DfID set up the UK aid match scheme to give people a say in how UK aid money is spent, but the amount of money involved is very small. The scheme covers only £40m of the DfID aid budget, which this year stands at more than £11bn.
Keeping aid untied from commercial interests
The UK aid budget has remained formally “untied” since 2001. Previously, a share of UK aid-funded contracts had to go to British firms. But revelations in September that £500m in UK aid is spent through a small group of, primarily British, consultants raised questions about who benefits – and who profits – from the UK aid programme. Data compiled by the Guardian suggested the vast majority of DfID’s contracts is still going to companies based in the UK and that the share going to UK firms has risen in recent years.
Anti-poverty campaign group the World Development Movement has called for an independent parliamentary inquiry into how the department works with business. Last year, the group sounded the alarm after Mitchell reportedly linked aid to India with ambitions to sell Typhoon fighter jets.
Accelerating process of relieving highly indebted countries of debt
According to Nick Dearden, of Jubilee Debt Campaign, this commitment is “totally meaningless” as there is nothing the UK government can do to speed up the process. “The process was already established and hasn’t changed,” he says. What the UK could have done is to highlight the need for a post-heavily indebted poor countries (HIPC) debt mechanism. “As flawed as HIPC is, there is now no process for giving debt cancellation because HIPC is more or less at an end.” Dearden adds that the UK remains one of the staunchest opponents of examining future debt cancellation mechanisms, such as a debt court.
International arms trade treaty
The government claims it worked hard to “build consensus” in treaty negotiations to limit the sales of arms to “dangerous regimes”, but clearly not hard enough. The UK received a low score for security in the Center for Global Development‘s Commitment to Development Index, published in October, because of “high levels of arms sales to poor and undemocratic governments”. The outcomes of the March conference to finalise the treaty will be interesting to see.
The government wants to close the gap between military and reconstruction efforts, but in Afghanistan, MPs have already warned DfID against a focus on state-building, instead advocating that money should be spent on small-scale projects that deliver basic services. Icai concluded that the UK’s aid programme was not performing well. In September, a confidential report said health centres and schools built as part of the British counter-insurgency strategy are closing because the Afghan government could not afford to pay for their upkeep. The report criticised the government for building the facilities without consultation with the Afghan government and without much thought to sustainability.
The coalition government can take credit for this one, retaining the law passed before the election. However, activists believe stronger legislation is needed to close these funds and protect countries in the future.
Reforming global institutions
The International Monetary Fund has yet to fully implement its package of quota and governance reforms, approved in 2010. The UK ratified the reforms in 2011, but other important members – including the US – have not. Rising powers China and Brazil, along with the rest of the Brics (Russia, India and South Africa) countries, appear unwilling to wait for reform of the Bretton Woods institutions. They are expected to launch their own Brics development bank this year.
Cameron wants greater regional co-operation and a free trade area in Africa. However, trade justice advocates are sceptical about how this would work in practice. Dearden, from the Jubilee Debt Campaign, argues that the UK is merely advocating a western free trade model that would benefit western interests rather than African countries. “It isn’t a positive thing for the majority of people in African countries to be locked into trade agreements which keep them dependent on one or two commodities. It’s more business as usual,” says Dearden. Involving the private sector in development also makes some people nervous as it is unlikely that big corporations will be moved to change the existing world order.
Encouraging the involvement of more poor countries in climate change negotiations
The coalition can claim credit for its advocacy fund to strengthen the involvement of poorer countries in climate change negotiations. But Alison Doig, senior climate change adviser at Christian Aid, emphasises the need for the money to be used to amplify the voices of people directly affected by climate change, at the community level, rather than fund more high-level discussion. She notes that the government needs to get its own house in order on green issues if it wants to show international leadership.
Rather than honouring its commitment not to support investment in dirty fossil fuel energy production, Jubilee Debt Campaign points out that the government has reneged on its agreement to stop guaranteeing loans for overseas buyers to purchase them. The organisation claims the government has refused to change anything that would have made this possible. Since coming to power, the coalition has supported Siberian coal mining, a Brazilian deep sea oil platform, and Norwegian oil drilling. Doesn’t sound too green.