Was the UK's 0.7 percent aid benchmark a mistake?

The debate over the U.K.'s decision to dedicate 0.7 percent of gross national income to aid is more complex than "for or against," and some stakeholders find themselves somewhere in the middle. Photo by: Steve Lympany / MOD / Crown Copyright 2014

Members of U.K. Parliament who debated the country’s aid benchmark on Monday mostly spoke in favor of spending 0.7 percent of national income, the amount enshrined into national law. But participants were reminded often of the reason for the discussion: A petition protesting aid spending instigated by the right-wing newspaper Mail on Sunday attracted more than 260,000 signatures from U.K. residents, well above the 100,000 required to automatically trigger a parliamentary debate.

At first glance, those involved in the debate fall into two main camps: one believes 0.7 percent is too much, and the other believes it is a responsible amount, or perhaps even too little to tackle the world’s increasingly complex and protracted crises.

But a third — smaller camp — is emerging to question whether benchmarks are an effective tool of boosting and improving aid. Including some aid practitioners, economists and civil servants, these aid stakeholders believe aid benchmarks are a mistake, and place too much emphasis on quantity over quality. The ongoing public scrutiny of aid in the U.K. has brought those concerns to the forefront, shifting the conversation from if to how donor countries should reach the 0.7 target.

Largely believers in the 0.7 target “as a general goal,” as the head of Publish What You Fund Rupert Simons put it, they also question whether codifying such a specific number undermines flexible and reactive aid spending.

“I think these benchmarks are only useful to start the conversation,” Simons told Devex.

Public scrutiny

Monday’s parliamentary debate centered mostly on perennial concerns about transparency, accountability and corruption in U.K. aid spending. The discussion frequently turned to Daily Mail allegations that U.K. aid funds terrorists in the Palestinian territories, and that the U.K. sends aid to countries with notoriously corrupt governments such as Nigeria.

While the debate carries no legislative weight, it served as a reminder that swathes of the U.K. public have reservations about aid spending, despite recent surveys that show the majority of Britons believe in giving aid in principle.

“Relatively few of us have acknowledged the views of, if we’re honest with ourselves, millions of citizens of this country,” member of the Parliament Robert Jenrick said during the debate.

“And if we believe in aid, and I do, and in the 0.7 commitment, and I do, then I think it’s absolutely right we try to address those concerns.” He added, “Several hundred of my constituents signed [the petition], and I can’t brush it aside.”

How to spend it

The 0.7 aid target was first established by the United Nations in 1975. The U.K. is the first and only Group of Seven nation to meet the target, and joins Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Luxembourg and the Netherlands as the only nations hitting the benchmark.

Enshrining the amount into law raised questions for aid stakeholders, who worried about quality, transparency, and capacity to absorb the funds.

“I don't think benchmarks are generally a helpful way of allocating your money, but once you've decided to allocate it the important thing is to be consistent and stick with those plans, because what's really damaging is if the aid budget goes up and down like a yo-yo and countries suddenly have their funding cut,” Simons of Publish What Your Fund said.

Enshrining a budget in law also potentially reduces accountability, Owen Barder, Europe director of the Center for Global Development pointed out.

“Those spending public [money] should have to continuously defend and explain why it’s important, and that should never be bypassed,” he said. “I’d like to see them go on spending 0.7 percent but I don’t think we should ever stop scrutinizing it,” he said.

Others argue that the 0.7 law has attracted the wrong kind of scrutiny, in the form of sensational reporting from the U.K. mainstream press. The Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, for example, routinely lambast aid spending, asking why aid should have a ring-fenced budget — along with defense, education and the National Health Service — while austerity cuts continue to gauge all other departments across government.

“[The 0.7 commitment] just brings down these vultures from the media and elsewhere for whom it becomes an issue. My view is those targets are arbitrary and stupid and get you into more trouble than they’re worth,” one official from a contracting firm working for the U.K. Department for International Development told Devex.

“Also, governments need flexibility. Different times call for different measures, and you can’t maintain it in certain emergency situations and sometimes you should spend more,” he said.

A hushed conversation

Despite the growing debate, those who disagree with the 0.7 benchmark still keep a low profile — including speaking to Devex on condition of anonymity, something nearly all DfID implementers contacted for this article requested. These stakeholders say they want to avoid conflating their views with the belief that the legal passage of 0.7 led the the U.K. government to “rush money out the door” in order to reach the quota by the end of the financial year.

“It’s actually remarkable how well DfID has managed to increase the aid budget,” Barder said.

“[DfID] has managed to increase the pipeline with finite technical and professional capacity in a way that continues to deliver proven results,” he said.

In terms of lessons for other donors considering adopting the benchmark as a goal rather than a law, Barder said it was “largely a question of political will,” but also hinged heavily on the U.K.’s historically “excellent reputation” for delivering aid.

While Monday’s debate, like previous debates over aid spending, carries no legal weight, public officials seemed to agree there is a need to clarify the role of aid, both in practical and fiscal terms.

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DfID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDfID.

About the author

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.