Labour’s commitment to foreign aid is seen as strong

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

As the U.K.‘s general election campaign heats up, the international development community – and especially the country’s influential NGOs – are scrutinizing the Labour Party’s track record while reading the tea leaves on plans to improve aid effectiveness and reform procurement procedures.

It would be strange if development issues were not seen as potential political capital for Labour, and to figure prominently in its positioning. After all, Douglas Alexander, Labour’s most recent secretary of state for international development, serves as the party’s election campaign coordinator.

Thirteen years ago, the incoming Labour government’s most significant act in the realm of foreign assistance was to establish the Department for International Development as a separate government department, with a cabinet-level head. Overseas Aid, DfID’s predecessor, had come under the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and as such was seen at least in part as a function of U.K. foreign policy.

Through “tied aid,” the foreign assistance budget had also been used as a means of winning business for U.K. organizations. The high-profile case of the Pergau Dam in Malaysia, in 1994, highlighted how aid money could effective be used as “sweetener” for a huge deal involving British arms contractors and others.

On coming to power, Labour committed to not tying aid, and in 2002 passed legislation to open up development business to foreign contractors.

There has also been a consistent commitment to increasing the levels of U.K. aid. At the 2005 G-8 summit at Gleneagles, the government pledged to reach the U.N. target for Western governments to reserve 0.7 percent of national income for foreign assistance, by 2013. Figures issued by DfID last year indicate that this will constitute a total of £9 billion a year by that date.

A commitment to make this a legal requirement was announced at the Labour Party conference last autumn, and early attempt to create clear policy space between the party and its Conservative opposition. Legislation was introduced in January, but continues to linger in parliament. Labour’s manifesto, published in April, restates that it will “enshrine this commitment in law” if re-elected.

In short, this background has convinced U.K. non-governmental organizations that the Labour Party has a genuine and ongoing commitment to the cause of international development. Major questions have been raised around broader areas of policy targeted by campaigners, particularly the need to reform international trade regulations to benefit poorer countries. But while progress in this area has been slow at best, Labour still appears to be making the right noises in the eyes of the U.K.’s strong NGO community.

Labour’s manifesto states that it will quadruple funding for fair and ethical trade and press for a fair World Trade Organization deal “with no enforced liberalisation for poor countries, and increased duty-free and quota-free access.”

Central to Labour pledge: Meeting the MDGs

Central to Labour’s manifesto is the pledge to “lead an international campaign to get the Millennium Development Goals back on track.” In March, DfID held a conference entitled “Agenda 2010: The Turning Point on Poverty,” with an eye on reinvigorating the debate in the run-up to the U.N.’s MDG Summit in New York this September. It produced a series of recommendations on how the MDGs should be met, with specific focus on those relating to hunger and nutrition, maternal and child health, and education.

These priorities can be seen reflected in specific funding pledges made in the new manifesto. They include: £8.5 billion over eight years “to help more children go to school”; £6 billion on global health between 2008 and 2015; £1 billion through the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; £1 billion “for water and sanitation by 2013”; and “over £1 billion on food security and agriculture.”

These are big, reflecting a Labour commitment, since followed by the other main parties, to protect budgets for international development from the deep cuts in public spending that all parties acknowledge will follow the election.

In the past two years, the size of DfID grants has similarly got bigger and the processes for winning them have become more complex. The agency is increasingly partnering with consortia of nonprofits and companies. Recent awards, in the region of £25 million, have gone to NGOs and others working in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in India, for instance. The move is also towards such sums being awarded by DfID offices in-country, rather than in London, increasing the need for organizations to scale up of operations abroad.

This trend could be expected to continue should Labour retain power after the May 6 general election.

If the Conservative opposition has followed the government line on meeting the 0.7 percent funding target, then Labour has been at pains to respond to the Conservative emphasis on “aid effectiveness” in its proposals.

“Our aid will target the poorest and most excluded – spent transparently and evaluated independently,” says the Labour manifesto. It also contains a commitment to deliver “at least 30 million additional anti-malarial bednets over the next three years.”

This focus on aid effectiveness could lead to an increased emphasis on monitoring and evaluation.

“Labour suddenly seems desperate to count the number of condoms it is providing to developing countries,” one insider said.

Campaigners, however, are encouraged by the party’s positive statements on the issues of taxes, debt and climate change.

“Further action will be taken to strengthen developing countries’ tax systems, reduce tax evasion, improve reporting, and crack down on tax havens,” the Labour manifesto notes. There is also a pledge to build on recent legislation to clamp down on “vulture funds.”

The key commitment on climate change is to contribute to a $100 million fund, proposed by Labour leader Gordon Brown, to help developing countries tackle the problems brought about by global warming, and to push for a global climate change treaty that will safeguard their future.

Some, however, are angered that the pledge for climate change funding seems to renage on previous commitments that it would be in addition to other aid commitments, not taken from the aid budget.

“Labour’s finance promise to help countries cope with climate change would partly come out of the aid budget, diverting finance away from health and education, rather than being additional to that much needed aid,” said Julian Oram, head of policy at the World Development Movement.

Read more about the May 6 U.K. general election and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats’ 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.