John Lamont MP: Why the architecture of Britain’s development commitment matters

As part of CFID's recent Essay Collection, published with Save the Children, John Lamont MP writes about why the architecture of Britain’s development commitment matters

Why the architecture of Britain’s development commitment matters

Rightly, the case is often made for the impact of British aid for the world’s most vulnerable people, and its role in helping the world’s poorest countries to stand on their own two feet. It is a case that cannot be made often enough – as the Prime Minister said on her recent visit to South Africa, since 2015 UK Aid has immunised 37 million children, put almost 11.5 million children in school, and given more than 40 million people access to clean water or proper sanitation. The difference made by the UK taxpayer for the world’s poorest people is staggering, and it is detailed eloquently by other voices in this collection.

It is important to champion and defend the 0.7% commitment on these terms, because its impact is its value. However, focusing solely on results does not make the full argument in favour of an annually calculated aid-spending target, secured by legislation and internationally agreed rules – there’s a more pragmatic political case to make too.

The size of the aid budget is a regular target for critics, and it is frequently assumed to be bigger than it actually is. 0.7% of GNI will of course go up as well as down as total GNI does. This means we will never be over-committed to aid when we can’t afford it, our generosity is proportionate to our means. It is right that we always look at how this money is being spent and make sure it goes as far as possible to help those most in need, however calls to reduce aid spending in favour of domestic priorities miss this point; the budget only increases when our ability to fund other areas increases too. Arguments are made, even by supporters of the UK’s role as an aid donor, that the 0.7% commitment is arbitrary, and that legislating for it is unnecessary. Indeed, we should concede that the fact that the commitment is 0.7% of GNI (rather than, for example, 1% or 0.5%) is, in 2018, largely academic.

However, this does not negate the importance of retaining a clear red line – and upholding this existing, internationally accepted line ensures stability. The target forces a binary decision on any UK government – do they keep the promise not to, in the words of former Secretary of State Andrew Mitchell, “balance the books on the backs of the poorest people in the world”? This line means that there can be no gradual deterioration of the aid budget, no ‘death by a thousand cuts’ reducing spending while retaining the rhetoric of a country committed to aid. Instead, the commitment to aid has to be a simple ‘for’ or ‘against’ decision and the legislation that enshrines it gives parliamentarians and the public a say in the matter.

The aid budget is not like other government budgets. The level of funding needed to end extreme poverty could never be met by the UK alone, so there is not a question of whether the funding is sufficient, as with domestic resources. This makes it necessary to treat it differently from other budgets, and the 0.7% target, and associated legislation, takes it out of the politics of annual allocations to turn it from a scale into a choice. It is often said that the UK is an ‘international development superpower’, and the 0.7% commitment’s place in this is crucial.

Successive British governments’ determination not just to be a leading aid donor, but to legislate for it, sets a powerful example and makes a statement about the country’s role on the world stage. Indeed, as a leading member of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, the UK plays a crucial part in setting the bar high for other countries, both on the quantity of their aid and for the rigour with which they approach the rules that govern how they can spend it. The number of countries reaching 0.7% is growing, and both France and Ireland have recently set out their intention to follow Britain’s lead in doing so.

The commitment’s impact in terms of soft power is not limited to building relationships with developing countries. It is critical in keeping global standards high but also cementing the UK’s status as a key player. In fact, this is a case that has recently been made to select committees by three former UK Permanent Representatives to the United Nations – Sir John Sawers, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, and Matthew Rycroft, who have said that the UK owes a significant proportion of its influence at the UN to its credentials as a leading aid donor. If ‘Global Britain’ is to be a reality as the UK leaves the European Union, then it must be built on the UK’s strengths, and the example we set with aid is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal in building global influence.

As a Scottish MP, I am proud of the role in which Scotland plays in the UK’s international aid programme. Run from the joint headquarters in East Kilbride, there are many examples of Scottish charities doing great work with the support of UK Aid.

The benefit of British aid is clear – it not only saves and changes lives, it also ensures that the UK looks beyond its borders to help those in need. The value of the 0.7% target is in drawing a line that forces a decision for governments – do they commit to this approach or don’t they – and in providing the global leadership that ensures British influence in the world.

By John Lamont, MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk