Simon Maxwell

In to bat for the aid programme

The ring-fencing of aid in the Government Spending Review has attracted a great deal of criticism in sections of the press, so I was ready for some aggressive bowling when asked to give evidence to the Treasury Select Committee of the House of Commons. You can see how I got on here, or read the transcript when available. And you can vote on whether aid should be ring-fenced here. I hope you will think the wicket was still standing at the end of the over.

Enough cricket metaphors. The ring-fencing is remarkable, in the context of cuts of up to 30% in most Departments. Aid, by contrast, is scheduled to rise every year, with a major rise in 2013, in order to hit the 0.7 target in that year. This is coupled with a cut of a third in the admin budget for DFID. The oda figures are as follows:


ODA  (£bn)












The questions were pretty much as expected – not surprising, really, since the Committee Clerks normally brief witnesses on what kinds of questions to expect. It is the supplementaries you have to watch out for. On this occasion, the main lines of questioning were about how to justify the increase, whether it could usefully be spent, and whether the increase would garner public support.

There are three answers to the first question. The first is that this was a pledge made internationally, and the UK is a country that keeps its promises. The second is that aid works, in saving lives, boosting health and education, and helping to provide the infrastructure needed for growth. The third is that aid is also an investment in our own welfare and security. I quoted the analysis of first, second and third tier threats in the new National Security Strategy, to make the point that many (terrorism, crime, pandemics) are linked to, or have their roots, in developing countries.

The second question had different dimensions. One or two Members expressed the view that some (most?) existing aid was wasted because of corruption in developing countries, so additional aid was likely to be equally ineffective. Others were concerned about the rapid ramp-up in 2013, especially when admin costs were being cut. My answer on the first point was to refer to the focus on results implied by the Millennium Development Goals, and the concentrated attention paid to this by Andrew Mitchell, the Secretary of State. On the second point, I was optimistic that DFIDDepartment for International Development would be able to scale-up, given three years to prepare, and said that there would probably be more budget support, and more aid provided through multilaterals, probably especially the IDA. Clearly, however, DFIDDepartment for International Development could not spend 30% more with 30% fewer staff without doing business differently.

On the third question, I had to admit it was true that public opinion surveys showed less support for the aid programme than, say, for the National Health Service. However, there was a very strong commitment to global poverty reduction among the UK public, as expressed during the Make Poverty History campaign, and through events like Comic Relief, the last iteration of which raised far more money than its predecessor, despite recession. The additional funding planned for aid was relatively modest – total funding was only about 1% of total Government expenditure. And, if all went well, the big increase in aid would come at a time when the economy had fully recovered. It was important that all the main political parties had committed to 0.7 during the election. Sustaining public support was partly a matter of political leadership.

There was no time for a very detailed cross-examination. I shared the witness table with John Appleby of the King’s Fund, whose job was to discuss NHS funding, and who took the bulk of the questions. We could, for example, have had a longer discussion about the results agenda (see my post on this, and the very useful discussion it has sparked). I would have liked to spend more time talking about the options for ramping up, especially in relation to budget support and the other multilaterals, including the UN and the EU. Probably, I should have mentioned the favourable peer review of DFID, published this year by the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD.

Anyway, let’s see. We’ll have to wait for the publication of the Committee report to find out what they think.

Meanwhile, I’m curious to know what you think. Should the aid budget have been ring-fenced? You can comment on this blog, or use the new interactive section of the website, to vote.

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