On Monday 9th of March the international development bill received royal ascent and enshrined Britain’s commitment to spending 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on Official Development Assistance (ODA) into law. This policy has, and will continue to be an extremely controversial issue in the run-up to the UK general election in May. However, the process that has led to this historic commitment should be celebrated by all.
One of the things which makes Britain great is our culture of generosity. British people rank seventh in the world in terms of the percentage of the population who give money, volunteer and help strangers according to the 2014 World Giving Index – a report published annually by Charities Aid Foundation (CAF).
Given our generosity as individuals, we might expect to see the governments that we elect show a similar degree of benevolence when it comes to international aid. Indeed, the UK ranks equally highly in terms of national generosity as its people do at the individual level. According to a study by the OECD, the UK ranked 6th in the world in terms of the proportion of GNI given to ODA in 2013 behind United Arab Emirates (1.25%), Norway (1.07%), Sweden (1.02%) and Luxembourg (1%) and only second to the United States in absolute terms.
Despite claims that the British public do not support high levels of aid spending, 67 per cent of people in the UK said that “we should keep our promise to increase aid to developing countries” (54 per cent), or that “we should increase aid to developing countries beyond what is already promised” (13 per cent) according to a Eurobarometer poll carried out for the European Commission has found.
Contrary to the idea that the 0.7% commitment is somehow a government imposition that crowds out civil society, we should see it as the culmination of a long civic discourse in which charities have rallied public support in order to hold our government to account for its overdue promises.
First pledged in a 1970 General Assembly Resolution, the 0.7% target has been affirmed in many international agreements over the years, including the March 2002 International Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg later that year and in a 2005 European Union pledge that donors should commit to reaching the long-standing target of 0.7% of GNI by 2015. The tenacity of some of the UKs leading charities in running campaigns such as Make Poverty History in 2005, and of the Enough Food For Everyone IF in 2013 helped to ensure that the UK finally did what it had promised to do.
There is a good reason why charities are keen to get government commitment for aid spending. Part of this reason is obviously that government provides a lot of funding for development charities. Oxfam for example, gets 25% of its funding from national governments and 42% overall when international institutions like the United Nations and the European Union are taken into account. But another part of the reason for gaining government commitment to funding aid is that governments are empowered to think much more strategically about how change can be brought about.
Charities are extremely effective in fundraising for international development programmes and the public are very responsive to the huge needs of people in less fortunate circumstances than themselves. However, whilst many charities do manage to articulate more complex strategic approaches to achieving outcomes in the developing world, it can be difficult to convince the public to donate for some areas of work. Democracy means electing a government to take decisions for us on matters that we cannot hope to develop a sufficiently nuanced understanding. This is a delicate balance but Department for International Development’s (DFID) use of ODA is an area where the public understand that a systematic and dispassionate approach can compliment the more reactive and emotionally driven funds provided through public donation.
Research by CAF into humanitarian appeal response rates show that individuals are more likely to donate to disasters that they consider to be natural and less likely to give to tackle the underlying long-term problems that lead to crises. Donors give emotionally and they find it much easier to connect with a cause that is immediate and can be easily contextualised. As such, complex, long standing issues are harder to motivate public giving for, even though they are no less vital. So if communicating the need to help the victims of disasters in some complex environments to the public is difficult, gaining private donations for the kind of systematic, long-term work in which DFID engages is especially so.
In this way, it is no exaggeration to say that the 0.7% commitment represents a triumph for the effective partnership of civil society organisations and the state. Donors support the campaigning work of the charities they fund to gain maximum benefit for beneficiaries and they understand that advocating for public spending is a key piece of that puzzle. It might seem odd now that the consensus that exists in this country for government funding and provision of services, particularly in social welfare, often has roots in long forgotten campaigns by charities. The idea that a commitment to spending 0.7% of GNI on ODA was so controversial in the 21st century and owed a great deal to advocacy by charities may well soon seem like an anachronism.
It is in this light that another important aspect of DFIDs work comes to the fore. Given that civil society has a central role in the story of our own development as a nation, our approach to development must necessarily recognise the importance of creating an enabling environment for civil society organisations in developing nations. To this extent, DFIDs Civil Society Department’s 2011-2015 Operational Plan states explicitly that “for lasting development and change, the UK Government recognises the value of a vibrant and active civil society.” Indeed, it is crucial that this aspect of ODA is taken even more seriously in the future. CAFs Future World Giving project has, through a number of reports, set out both the potential for civil society in emerging economies to thrive as the disposable income of their citizens increases but also the myriad barriers that need to be overcome in making that hopeful future a reality.
None of this is to say that criticisms of aid spending should be silenced. We have a duty to ensure that ODA is used effectively and we need to be vigilant in ensuring that it does not have unintended consequences for the countries that we are trying to help. That is why the Department for International Development (DFID) has taken steps to be more transparent in recent years, having signed the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and published 127 datasets on its numerous projects. The coalition government has also created a new inspectorate, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), which has wasted little time in highlighting where mistakes are being made.
The commitment to spend 0.7% of our national income on development is a manifestation of how the generosity of individuals and that of society as a whole through the democratic mandate can be complementary. You might not agree with the policy, but the way that it came about should give hope to anyone who believes in the importance of civil society.