This joint post with David Roodman first appeared on the Guardian Poverty Matters blog.

Does Britain’s remarkable political consensus supporting foreign aid obscure a more ambiguous overall footprint in the developing world?Though by no means unanimous, Britain’s cross-party agreement to protect the aid programme from budget cuts is admirable. It reflects an understanding that it is ultimately in the national interest to support development, as well as being the right thing to do.

But there is more to helping poor nations to develop than giving aid. Rich and poor nations are linked in many ways: through trade and investment flows, migration, the environment, military affairs and technology. Governments influence all these channels, for good and ill. They subsidise their own agriculture, undercutting poor farmers overseas. They send peacekeepers to nations that are healing after civil war. They tax petrol, slowing global warming. They promote technological change, but limit its spread through patents.

Poor countries do not want to depend on aid: they want the opportunity to trade and grow and play their full part in the world economy. Their ability to do so depends in part on how the rich and powerful behave. That’s why the Centre for Global Development produces the annual Commitment to Development Index (CDI) to assess rich nations on their overall impact on the developing world.

Interactive: the Commitment to Development Index

In the latest index, published on Tuesday, Britain ranks 12th out of 22 countries. As you would expect, Britain scores well on foreign aid (ranking 8th). British aid is respectable for both its quantity, now at 0.51% of national income, and for its quality — the Department for International Development (DfID) tends to avoid parcelling aid out in penny packets, which impose an administrative burden on understaffed recipient governments.

Britain’s place in the CDI, however, is hurt by weaknesses elsewhere. Along with France and the US, it is a major exporter of weapons to undemocratic nations such as Saudi Arabia, which this year deployed its military to put down pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain. That’s why the UK ranks 19th out of 22 on security.

Once again the Nordic countries and the Netherlands come top of the league. Generosity with aid plays a part, but so do progressive policies on the environment (especially, limiting greenhouse gas emissions) and migration (welcoming legal immigrants from developing countries). Japan and South Korea are the least development-friendly, with high barriers to goods and workers from poorer nations and low contributions to foreign aid and peacekeeping operations.

Given the Blair government’s high-profile commitment to Africa, it is interesting to ask whether Britain does well by that continent. In fact it does, which one can see by selecting “sub-Saharan Africa” in the interactive. Doing so zeros in on aid to Africa, barriers to African imports, secondments of troops to peacekeeping in Africa, and so on. The UK comes fourth, behind only Ireland, Portugal and Sweden.

As you can sense, we have packed a lot into the CDI. The interactive lets you explore the details. The index is based on publically available data, and on the Centre for Global Development site you can find all our calculations so you can see how the scores are produced. You can also browse through performance reports for each country, and background papers. For the technically savvy, there are online spreadsheets and databases.

The Centre for Global Development has worked hard to improve the CDI. But it is not an infallible measure of development impact and intent. You can argue about almost every indicator. Are big aid projects always better? What if carbon emissions fall for reasons that have nothing to do with government policy? And should it include economic policies, such as bank regulation and interest rate settings, which also have huge effects overseas?

We welcome such discussion. For us, the real goal is not an infallible index, but more awareness of, and readiness to improve, the full range of policies that affect the lives of the global poor. Aid alone is not the way to measure our footprint in the developing world. The CDI shows that every country can improve on many fronts.

David Roodman is a senior fellow at the Centre for Global Development and the architect of the Commitment to Development Index. Owen Barder is a senior fellow and the Europe director of the Centre for Global Development

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5 Responses to How committed are we to development?

  • Interesting read. Aid policies are a mix on ‘pro-aid’ and ‘anti-aid’ practices as alluded to in this post. This is because democratic governments have to respond to their constituencies. Regardless of what the empirical literature might say, if there is an NGO that subscribes to a significant popular aid mythology or a significant business sector dependent on arms manufacture and export, then it will be responded to. Therefore, it is no surprise to see all-party support for development since we don’t really know what constituencies and subsequently what type of aid they each have in mind.
    What I would like to see someday are negative or positive ratios as based upon the tension between ‘pro-aid’ and ‘anti-aid’ practices thereby assessing whether a national programme is on a whole for the good or for the bad. Rien ne vit que par le detail.

  • the technology area is somewhat ambiguous, and does not always aequately assess r and D. In agriculture australia has a system of government matchng funds to industry funds provided by farmers for which the latter has no r and d tax allowance. this effectively doubles the government rand d in this very valuable area. And a lot of Australian aid is agriculture and governance focused.

  • Owen, I think this is absolutely brilliant and so important. Fantastic campaign, information and graphics. Awesome.

  • But, have you considered grading negatively for security actions not sanctioned by the UN? – e.g. the invasion of Iraq. I think most people will be surprised by how well the US does on security, and perhaps feel their positioning of fleet near trade routes doesn’t make-up for military contraversies.

    Also, what about grading negatively for trading with autocratic regimes in a non-transparent fashion, like buying oil from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria etc. Or is this not compatible with the data set because it’s orchestrated through private companies rather than countries? One way of getting round this problem might be to include an indicator for government support of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, or something like that…?

  • Peter: while I can’t say for sure, I would guess and hope that the Australian government counts the government’s share of that spending in reporting its figures on R&D spending to the OECD. If so, then the CDI would pick it up because it counts budgetary spending as well as tax breaks for R&D.

    Alice: Yes, we have considered penalizing, not just excluding, participation in military interventions that lack an international mandate. It would be an entirely reasonable way to do it. I don’t have a great answer for why we don’t do it that way, except that it seemed about the right place to position ourselves when we chose the methodology some years ago. Neutrality was attractive in order to avoid entangling the CDI in the whole Iraq fight in the U.S. But maybe doing what you suggest would be a nice way to offset the reward the U.S. gets for Afghanistan. The stance would be: international military games are double or nothing (as it were): either good or bad for the international order, but not neutral.

    I don’t think it would work well to penalize buying oil from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and so on because there is basically just one world oil market. It is entirely possible that the U.S. imports no oil from Saudi Arabia since it’s more economical to import oil the same hemisphere. Yet by buying lots of oil on the world market, the U.S. boosts crude prices and makes Saudi Arabia richer.

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