The UK's 0.7% blowback, Ethiopia's aid prospects, and Google's 'moonshot' miss: This week in development

A Loon balloon. Photo by: Bruce Washburn / CC BY

U.K. aid cuts lack transparency — and might be illegal — the EU weighs its options in Ethiopia, and Google's parent company shuts down a “moonshot” project to provide internet access with balloons. This week in development:

The United Kingdom’s plan to reduce aid spending is causing major blowback. In November, government officials announced the country would miss its legally mandated target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on official development assistance in 2021 and would instead spend 0.5% of GNI on aid. That amounts to a cut of £4.5 billion, or $6.2 billion, which could result in 100,000 deaths due to scaled-back immunizations, according to a new analysis by the Center for Global Development.

• A coalition of NGOs has taken the rare step of issuing a joint statement condemning the lack of government transparency over how funding reductions are being planned and which programs will be affected. “Given that the U.K. has consistently been such a global leader in aid transparency, it’s truly shocking how the cuts last year unfolded and how little we know about what’s happening this year,” said Gary Forster, CEO at Publish What You Fund.

• A former U.K. solicitor general, Lord Edward Garnier, argued in a letter obtained by Devex that the government’s plan to miss the 0.7% target could be illegal. The government “can say it intends to change the law or substitute another target but, until the statute is repealed or amended, the Government is subject to that law. It cannot legitimise a failure to hit the target by announcing in advance its intention to fail,” he wrote.

The European Union is negotiating for unfettered humanitarian access to Ethiopia, as the country’s government continues its military offensive against the Tigray region. The EU plans to send Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto to Ethiopia next month to press the government on a list of conditions that would allow suspended aid plans to continue.

• Hirut Zemene, Ethiopia’s ambassador to the EU, tried to reassure European partners this week that the government’s “law and order operation” against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in early November was over in three weeks and that development partners should “look [at] things in the right context and perspective and not to be taken by transient challenges here and there.”

• Zemene’s description conflicts with accounts from the United Nations and EU officials, who have complained that Ethiopia’s “tiny steps” toward humanitarian access are nowhere near enough “to avert a major catastrophe.”

• The European Commission has laid out a set of conditions that would allow suspended aid payments to resume. They include full humanitarian access, allowing civilians to seek refuge in neighboring countries, an end to ethnic targeting and hate speech, human rights monitoring, and restoration of communications and media.

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, announced Friday that it is shutting down Loon, a “moonshot” project that sought to deliver the internet from high-flying balloons. Development experts were not surprised by the failure to launch.

• Loon was piloting its technology in Kenya, but Alastair Westgarth, the project’s CEO, said his team could not find a way to get costs low enough to build a sustainable business reaching people at the “last mile.”

• The project emerged from an Alphabet subsidiary called X, known as its “moonshot factory,” which “aims to pursue technological breakthroughs by taking crazy ideas seriously.”

• “The problem is when moonshots are viewed as the panacea, and draw resources and attention away from what we know can improve the situation today, which is conducive policy and regulations for market entry, competition and investment with proven technologies and flexible business models,” John Garrity, an independent consultant to public and private sector organizations working on digital inclusion, wrote to Devex.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.