0.7%: The race for new aid legislation in the UK

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Early last week the UK government released draft text of the legislation announced in November, to commit to dedicating 0.7% of gross national income on aid from 2013.  The 0.7% target has been an international commitment for forty years, and the legislation represents a historic opportunity to see this promise delivered.  For Non-Governmental Organisations in the UK, one of the longest standing advocacy goals in aid seems, at last, to be within touching distance.

However, it may yet be out of reach.  There are only a matter of weeks left in this parliament, and precious little time to get the legislation through the UK’s two houses.  NGOs were unsuccessful in persuading the government to accelerate the legislation by avoiding the drafting stage, and if the bill gets snarled up in cross-party debates it will certainly fail to reach the statute books in this parliamentary session.

It is competing for time with a range of other bills, and insiders doubt whether the legislation has sufficiently strong champions within government to drive it through.  There may not be another chance.  A general election is expected in May, and if, as expected, the centre-left Labour party loses to the centre-right Conservatives, there are concerns that a full bill may not be carried through the next parliamentary session.

This would be very frustrating, especially as all three of the UK’s major political parties do support the 0.7% target.  Aid, along with health, and it is the only area of spending that the Conservatives have pledged to safeguard if elected.  For their leader, David Cameron, this move meant courting some controversy within his own party.  Some Conservative party members and MPs oppose ring-fencing aid when other spending areas are on the chopping block, but Cameron’s pro-development stance is key to moving his party towards “Compassionate Conservativism”.  Given the concerns around legislating on budget commitments, there are worries that backing the bill would be a step too far for Cameron and his party.

There seems to be little in the draft legislation itself that the Conservatives should oppose, however, if they really are committed to reaching 0.7%.  The bill is simple, sensible stuff.  It makes an unambiguous legal commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid, using the definitions of aid set out in legislation passed in 2002.  It requires the Secretary of State to report to parliament if that target is not met in any given spending year – explaining how fiscal, economic and external circumstances led to the failure.  The Secretary of State then has to describe any steps that have been taken to ensure the target is successfully met in the following years.

Arguably, these reporting requirements could be a little more robust.  The clause on describing spending failure with reference to fiscal, economic and external circumstances could be seen to imply that these circumstances legitimate such a spending failure.  It might be stronger if the Secretary of State were simply required to explain why the target had been missed – potentially exposing the role of political priorities in such a failure.  Instead of describing any actions being undertaken to meet the target in future, the Secretary of State could be required to devise and commit to an action plan to ensure the target is achieved.

These tweaks would really be quite minor, however, and as it stands the bill is strong enough to warrant support from all political parties and the NGO community.  The race is now on to build a movement for cross-party support, and challenge those who claim to support aid volumes to back the bill that would make it law.

(This post was originally published on the Eurodad website)

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