On January 13th, a leader in The Times and Kevin Watkins in The Guardian attacked the development policies of the UK Conservative Party, from opposite sides of the political spectrum. The Times Leader says that the Conservatives are wrong to commit themselves to increase aid to 0.7% of GNI; and Kevin Watkins says that the Conservatives are wrong to want to reform the way aid is given. Both attacks appear to be bone-headed efforts to make political mischief by undermining not just Conservative party policies but the mainstream consensus on development. Neither attack does credit to its perpetrator.
The Times criticizes the Conservative Party for their commitment to maintain the planned increases in development spending. The leader recycles discredited assertions about the negative effects of aid rather than offering solid analysis. There isn’t a single reputable econometric study showing that aid causes harm through exchange rate appreciations, corruption or slowing progress to democracy. Peter Bauer, whom the leader article quotes, was criticising Cold War foreign assistance programmes which bear little resemblance to aid programmes today. Aid today is increasingly practical, targeted and measurable, just as The Times says it should be, and it works.
Britain was one of 147 countries which pledged we would “spare no effort” to meet the Millennium Development Goals. As The Times implies, we should not be judged on what we spend but on what we achieve. On this basis we are not yet doing enough to achieve the goals to which we are committed. That is why it is important that Britain should continue to increase its world-class development programme, and press other nations to increase their spending too. To resist this on the grounds that 0.7% is an arbitrary figure is a clever-sounding point for a debating society, not a reasoned argument against the commitment of all the main political parties to meet Britain’s international promises, and to press other countries to do the same.
From the other end of the political spectrum, Kevin Watkins in The Guardian seems to be determined to use development to score party political points – and to do so he has had to put himself in the strange position of arguing against the country-led approach to development which is supported by all main UK political parties.
Under the Labour Government Britain has helped build an international consensus that aid works best in support of a country’s own development strategy; that policies imposed from outside rarely work; and that governments should be accountable to their own citizens for their policies and actions. Kevin Watkins rightly supports these points in other contexts. Yet he apparently won’t entertain the idea that other countries may have different views from his (and mine) about the best way to organise and fund public services.
I’ve read the Conservative Green Paper and it does not call for state services to be rolled back in developing countries. It says that governments should guarantee access to education for all their people; and that donors should fund that guarantee and support and encourage governments to choose whatever path enables them to expand education provision fast and effectively. It does not propose or advocate market-based solutions in education: it says explicitly that the Conservatives would work with the public, not-for-profit and private sectors.
Kevin Watkins quotes the Green Paper saying “We bring a natural scepticism about government schemes“; this is the entire basis of his claim that “the Conservatives will use aid to roll back the state in key services“. But it is clear when you read this sentence in context that the Conservatives are questioning the role of the government in aid, not planning to tell other countries how they should manage their public services.
There is now a valuable cross-party consensus on the need to use aid money to support countries’ own development priorities and programmes. The challenge today is how to bring public sector reform to the aid business – including the possibility of some market-like disciplines to make aid more effective and accountable. There are proposals in both the Government White Paper and the Conservative Green Paper to make aid more transparent and accountable and to link it more closely to results. Kevin Watkins might have used his space to tell us what he thinks about these ideas instead of trying to score party political points on development.
(By the way, I admire Kevin Watkins, but I’m not comfortable with the fact that a UNESCO official, paid from public funds, is using his position to make highly partisan and inaccurate attacks in the newspapers on the main UK opposition party. )
I’ve got no party political axe to grind: my interest is in supporting the best possible policies to accelerate development, so that the world is a fairer, happier and safer place for everyone. It seems odd that the Conservatives should be attacked from both left and right for articulating development policies which seem to me squarely in the mainstream of development thinking.
The cross-party consensus that the UK’s development budget should continue to increase, and that British development policy is amongst the most effective in the world but nonetheless there is room for improvement, should be a matter of shared national pride, not scorn and sniping from whichever direction. Let’s sustain that consensus, and not allow development policy to be used as a political football even in the heat of an election campaign.
Update: see Kevin’s reply in the comments.