In UK elections, debate on the future of foreign aid heats up

Douglas Alexander stepped down as the U.K.'s secretary of state for international development in April to coordinate the Labour Party's 2010 general election campaign. Photo by: Norbert Schiller / World Economic Forum / CC BY-SA 2.0 World Economic ForumCC BY-SA 2.0

This weekend will see international development issues entering the mainstream U.K. general election debate, when the three main political party leaders make keynote speeches on their respective policies for alleviating poverty in the developing world.

Sunday, April 18, has been named as World Poverty Day by the Bond alliance of British development NGOs, which negotiated the coordinated timing of the speeches. The idea is to push international development up the political agenda leading up to the May 6 elections, alongside more headline-grabbing issues such as the economy, public health and crime.

It is now turning into more of a World Poverty Weekend, however, as Gordon Brown, prime minister and leader of the Labour Party, will be make his contribution at an event in the English midlands on Saturday. David Cameron, for the Conservatives, and Nick Clegg, for the Liberal Democrats, are due to make speeches Sunday.

The attention will be welcomed by nonprofits and advocacy groups, as coverage of development in the two weeks of the campaign so far has been muted – at best. Even newspapers which traditionally give space and attention to the subject have ignored it when looking at the parties’ policy manifestos. NGOs themselves have also been largely silent.

This is paradoxical, given that the areas of aid and international development have recently been enjoying their highest political profile since 2005. Then, an election took place in the midst of the hugely popular Make Poverty History campaign, in the run-up to the G-8 summit in Gleneagles. Development issues were the subject of blanket media coverage, trumpeted by the likes of Bono and Bob Geldof, and the first World Poverty Day was arranged.

While not giving it quite that kind of attention, the main parties have all made strong commitments on international development in the past weeks and months, clearly seeing it as an election issue. Central to all are pledges to reach the U.N. aid target of 0.7 percent national income by 2013.

Furthermore, they have all said that the U.K. budget for official development assistance will, after the elections, be protected from public spending cuts installed in response of ongoing economic calamities. The only other areas so singled out are spending on the National Health Service and on schools.

In manifestos outlined over the past week, the Conservatives – still leading in the polls – emphasized “results-based” assistance and the role of the private sector, while the ruling Labour Party pledged to spend 1 billion pounds in the areas of water, sanitation, food security and agriculture. The Liberal Democrats stressed the need to combat climate change and support global health and education programs.

Calm before the storm

So why has the U.K. aid community been silent thus far? Has no one got an opinion to offer on the relative merits of the parties’ programs?

“It might all be quiet on the surface, but there is a lot going on – and a lot of concerns – underneath,” one senior NGO insider said. “People are saying nothing because in a very close election, they are concerned about upsetting the eventual winner.”

Part of the worry is about access to the corridors of power after the election, a fear that doors will be slammed in the faces of those seen to have been critical of the party forming the new government.

But there are also more prosaic concerns. As private donations fell in the wake of the economic crisis, organizations have become increasingly reliant on government money to fund overseas projects and to cover their core costs. Were access to this to be denied, it could have serious implications for the future of some NGOs.

Then there is the law. Registered charities in the U.K. are subject to detailed regulations from the Charity Commission when it comes to campaigning, especially during a general election. Charitable organizations cannot be seen as backing one party over another. They must not, in short, tell their supporters who to vote for.

Further rules from the Electoral Commission mean that any organization spending a certain amount of money during an election, or producing material that supports a particular program, must have previously registered as a “third party.” Again, not a position that NGOs want to be seen to occupy.

“The fact that this election has been anticipated for so long is making this a more difficult line to tread than usual,” said Jenny Ricks, head of campaigns for Action Aid U.K. “The Electoral Commission is better prepared than if everything was a last-minute rush. It has already given one charity a slap on the wrist.”

She was referring to the League Against Cruel Sports, censured two weeks ago for labeling Conservatives “the nasty party”.

Some, however, are prepared to go further than others. John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, sees a problem with the way that the debate has so far been dominated by the 0.7 percent commitments, reducing the space for questions around other aspects of development.

“International development is not aid, and aid is not international development,” he said. “We want to hear more about trade, where the U.K. government has been absolutely appalling, and we want to hear more about tax, where the city of London is one of the nerve centers for corporate tax avoidance.”

“These are the big issues and they are not being talked about,” Hilary said.

The World Development Movement, a pressure group, does not have charitable status and so has even freer hands. In a forthcoming press release, the group plans to openly criticize the declared policies of the Labour and Conservative parties and give a detailed scoring for all proposed programs.

“We’re sure to hear a lot of noble words around World Poverty Day from the leaders, and it’s heartening that they all rate the issue as an election theme,” Julian Oram, WDM’s head of policy, said. “But when you look at how the three main parties actually plan to tackle poverty in the world today, you’ll see a considerable gap between the grand posturing of the leaders and the stunted ambition of the policies they actually hold.”

The three main party leaders, WDM argues, “must do better if you genuinely want to tackle the root causes of global poverty.”

Read more about the May 6 U.K. general election and the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour Party’s plans to reform foreign assistance.

About the author

  • John Davison

    John served as a Devex News correspondent based in London in 2010, covering DfID and U.K. aid reform. During a 10-year stint at the Sunday Times in the '80s and '90s, he was shortlisted as reporter of the year at the U.K. Press Awards, one of several accolades he has received. John has worked for the Independent and Conde Nast Traveller, among other publications. Most recently, he served as publisher of Christian Aid News, part of his role as head of media for Christian Aid.