Letters from Liam Fox to David Cameron have an uncanny habit of leaking. Last time, the leaked letter was about cuts to the defence budget at the time of the Strategic Defence Review. This time, the letter is about an increase in the international aid budget(£) or rather, as the Defence Secretary’s spokesman told reporters when the news broke last night, “how best to reflect the 0.7% target in law”.
In his last letter, Fox told Cameron that if the SDR “continues on its current trajectory it is likely to have grave political consequences for us, destroying much of the reputation and capital you, and we, have built up in recent years”. For a politician so concerned with his leader’s reputation and political capital, he must realise that adopting the 0.7% target was a key element of Cameron’s detoxification strategy in opposition and the winning of support from NGOs like Save the Children. Given the reputation of the ‘nasty party’, Labour constantly challenged the Tories to prove this commitment. Douglas Alexander’s 2009 DFID White Paper confirmed that Labour would legislate to enshrine the commitment in law in, an announcement made by Gordon Brown in his last party conference speech as Prime Minister. The Lib Dems had no problem welcoming the move but for their detoxification strategy to hold, the Conservatives had to match Labour in their manifesto.
Looking back at page 117 of the Conservative manifesto, the commitment is clear:
“A new Conservative government will be fully committed to achieving, by 2013, the UN target of spending 0.7% of national income as aid. We will stick to the rules laid down by the OECD about what spending counts as aid. We will legislate in the first session of a new Parliament to lock in this level of spending for every year from 2013.”
Liam Fox obviously missed the meeting about this because now he says that his “preferred way ahead” is to put “into statute recognition of the target and a commitment to an annual report against it”. Almost as worrying, he also claims that the OECD rules defining what spending counts as ODA (overseas development aid) will prevent his department raiding the ‘Conflict Pool’ (the fund for peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction). He wants to legislate for an annual report (the budget maybe?) in which the government can report that they can’t meet their international commitment to the world’s poorest people and they can’t keep their promise to the voters of Britain.
The last time they were in office, the Conservatives halved the aid budget. Labour trebled it. Aid spending is now 0.59%. In cash terms, the amount at issue here is a rise of £3.9bn, to meet the 0.7% commitment by 2013. Consider this against the Core Defence budget for 2009/10 of £35.4bn and of £36.9 bn for 2010/11, remembering that this does not include operational commitments in Afghanistan or the no-fly zone over Libya.
As well as lifting 3 million people out of poverty every year, building schools and saving the lives of women and children in the poorest countries in the world, much of the international aid budget is spent on upstream conflict prevention. The aid budget is not British taxpayers money that is given away, it is an investment in a safer and more stable world.
Fox’s position will not be unpopular with Tory MPs, as just 4% of them told Conservative Home before the election that international development should be immune from cuts. Perhaps these are the political consequences he is most concerned with. To dog whistle a trade-off between bednets and body armour is not just immoral but also ignores the work that the aid budget does in protecting Britain’s national interests.
Richard Darlington was Special Adviser at DFID 2009-2010 and is now Head of News at ippr