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The UK election and international development: main parties pledge 0.7%, but how will it be spent?

The UK election campaign is hotting up.  Last week all the major political parties issued their manifestos and a few others besides. We also witnessed the first live televised debate between the three main contenders for the UK’s highest political office.  Whatever your political persuasion, it is hard to avoid a sense that after a thoroughly dismal period, UK politics is waking up.

But how will all this be perceived beyond the shores of the UK? What, if anything about the political debate happening at home matters for the rest of the world?  And of particular interest to us at ODI, what are some of the messages coming out of the campaigns that will materially affect UK international development policy in the coming months and years?

There will be more on this from us in the coming weeks. But for now I want to reflect on the context in which the election debate on development is (or is not) happening here in the UK.

Most telling for outside observers is that international development figures at all in the political manifestos of the main parties, and I don’t only mean Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat but also the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru. This is no accident. It reflects a mini-revolution over the last decade in which international development has come onto the public’s radar and it has become unthinkable for a major political party to shun the values and aspirations of a better, safer and fairer world for all.  Look to the Jubilee debt campaign, Make Poverty History and the Gleneagles G8 for some of the inspiration.  And while it may not get a lot of column inches during the election, the UK’s role in fighting poverty globally is a matter of pride across a surprisingly broad spectrum of public opinion.  A test of how deep this support runs will be the extent to which international development features in the second leadership debate – on foreign affairs – this coming Thursday.

Clear in each of the main party manifestos is the commitment to achieving the 0.7% of GNI for aid. Contrast this with the OECD/DAC aid figures also released last week, showing that ODA disbursements in 2009 fell by 31.1% in Italy and 18.9% in Ireland and, for the first time this decade, total European Union aid disbursements were lower in 2009 than in 2008. This makes the UK one of a fairly select group of countries continuing to increase their ODA levels despite the financial crisis. It also makes the manifesto pledges of the main political parties to deliver on the target of 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) even more timely and important.  

But committing to 0.7 on paper is one thing. Delivering the policy and spending commitments needed to achieve 0.7 by 2013, and holding the political line on UK aid despite very difficult domestic circumstances, is quite another.  And although there is broad public support for international development in the UK, scratch the surface of a number of political parties and there is a lot less understanding of what this means than one would want at this point in a general election. 

The Labour Party, as incumbents, has the edge in explaining how it is going to reach the 0.7 target. Other parties have less detail at their finger tips.  

  • Labour plan to spend at least half the bilateral aid budget on conflict affected states, to spend £8.5 billion  over eight years to help children go to school,  £6 billion on health up to 2015, and £1 billion on the Global Fund to support the fight against HIV and AIDS, TB and malaria. There is £1 billion for water and sanitation by 2013 and £1 billion for food security and agriculture plus a quadrupling of funding for fair trade. 
  • The Conservatives focus more on what they won’t do - they won’t provide aid to China or Russia, for example, and they won’t renege on DFID’s status as an independent Department of State. They also focus heavily on the need to deliver value-for-money in what will be tough economic times ahead. They will publish full details of British aid on the DFID website and encourage more independent evaluation and payment by results.  In terms of spending they plan to spend at least £500 million a year on anti-malaria interventions and establish a Poverty Impact Fund to support innovative approaches to poverty reduction that currently go unfunded. 
  • The Liberal Democrats seek new sources of development finance through a financial transactions tax and cap-and-trade-system for carbon emission on aviation and shipping; spending priority for health and gender equality; funding for a new global fund for social protection to help developing countries build viable welfare systems; and a renewed international effort on debt relief for the world’s poorest countries.

For the most part, these are all ideas and commitments that have been circulating for some time in policy statements issued by the government and opposition parties in the last 12 months, with the exception of the Conservatives’ decision to go alongside the other parties and place the 0.7 target into national legislation. But a crucial question is whether there is any a wider read-across from the manifestos to the international development agenda?  Development is not only about aid and there is a danger that the allure of the 0.7 debate can and will detract from a much wider set of policy concerns that impact on the prospects for growth and prosperity in developing countries.  Each of the manifestos cover growth, trade, immigration, security and climate change – all  areas in which the debate about international development policy and global poverty reduction is increasingly engaged – but  none of them spell out in any detail what this means for the way their governments would work on these agendas or how the funding would work. Where is the coherence between policies and between policies and implementation?   

The Labour manifesto is the most up front about the challenges and opportunities of an interdependent world in which achieving prosperity for all is the only way forward for a prosperous UK. The Conservatives focus more heavily on the UK’s national interest and, speaking perhaps to its somewhat more sceptical party base, avoiding waste and inefficiency in aid spending. The Liberal Democrats walk the line, emphasising the importance of a stronger international architecture for tackling poverty and vulnerability.  

With the challenge of poverty reduction increasingly tied to the global and regional policy challenges of climate change, achieving balanced growth and security, it is essential that the next UK government shows leadership across this much broader policy space. Delivering the 0.7 target will be a major test for all parties but delivering across the whole of government on a truly progressive international development agenda will be an even bigger challenge.  Let’s see what Thursday’s debate brings.