Overseas Aid (Assistance to the Poorest)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:46 pm on 14th November 1989.

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Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson , Cunninghame North 3:46 pm, 14th November 1989

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Overseas Development and Co-operation Act 1980 to ensure that the bulk of United Kingdom official development assistance is concentrated on the poorest countries and the poorest people living in them and that a substantial proportion of aid spending is devoted to agricultural rural development to benefit especially women and children; and to require the Overseas Development Administration to establish a timetable during which overall official United Nations aid targets may be reached. My Bill sets out priorities and moral imperatives for overseas aid. It highlights the hypocricy of a Government who laud personal giving to the Third world but more than cancel that out with public parsimony. The Bill must be campaigned for in the short term and, under the next Labour Government, should be implemented. It insists that those in the refugee camps whom we can film, we can also feed. A wealthy country which fails to meet its responsibilities to the Third world exposes its own moral inadequacies.

The 1980s should have been a decade of advancement in the developing world. Instead, it has been a time of ever-increasing debt and of the negative transfer of resources from the developing to the developed world. Debt owned by the developing world now totals about £700 billion, an increase of one third in the last four years. In 1985, developing countries paid their creditors $29 billion more in interest and principal than they received in aid. Those trends are continuing. In other words, the situation is deteriorating.

As UNICEF recently disclosed, average family incomes in Africa and Latin America have fallen by between 10 and 25 per cent. since 1980. The poorest groups are the hardest hit. An increasing number are finding it more difficult to obtain even the basic necessities of life. Child malnutrition is now on the increase in most developing countries. Governments in debt must reduce their social services bills, which means reduced health care and less education.

Without falling into the simplification of citing goodies and baddies, it is clear that Her Majesty's Government must take at least some share of the blame. Since 1979, they have allowed Britain's aid programme substantially to deteriorate. In real terms, Britain's aid budget was allowed to fall by 36 per cent. between 1979 and 1987.

In terms of percentage of GNP—a crucial measure recognised by all donor nations—the figures are equally damning. In the last year of the last Labour Government, British aid had reached the level of 0·52 per cent., of GNP, and the United Nations goal of 0·7 per cent. of GNP was in sight. The incoming Tory Government reversed that trend and began to downgrade the importance of aid. It declined steadily year by year, until, by 1987, it had reached the miserable figure of 0·28 per cent. of GNP. In 1988, it made a small recovery, rallying to 0·32 per cent.

In theory, the Government are committed to achieving the United Nations target "when economic circumstances permit". The Prime Minister said that at the 1983 general election. We have since heard that phrase in a different context. In evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the Secretary of State for the Environment described the United Nations target as "slightly spurious". That reveals the true Tory attitude.

The decline in British aid as a percentage of GNP has reduced us from sixth in the league table of the 18 Western aid givers in 1979 to 14th today. Those figures should be deeply embarrassing, as other countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands seem to manage the target and those that do not are at least edging towards it. For instance, since 1979 Italy has increased its aid by 300 per cent., using the same criterion.

Clearly, the Government have no commitment to the 0·7 per cent. figure. That is why, in December 1988, Britain was criticised by other donor nations in the development assistance committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development when it called on this Government to reverse the downward trend in the United Kingdom's ODA/GNP ratio … and to make sustained progress towards the 0·7 per cent. ODA target. Of course that target is achievable, and the Bill demands a timetable to achieve it. We hear much about the Government's budget surplus, part of which is being used to pay off the national debt. Surely that should be a lower priority than the opportunity to benefit the poorest citizens of the world. The next Labour Government will not confuse priorities, and will work towards the 0·7 per cent. target. It is not a "spurious" figure, and we will achieve it in the lifetime of one Parliament—five years.

It is not just the amount of aid which matters, but its quality, and the Bill recognises that. The Government have presided over a deterioration in standards. The last Labour Government had an enviable record in delivering effective aid where it was needed—in the poorest countries, among the poor and disadvantaged social groups. Those criteria seem to have been lost in the general downgrading of aid under the Government. The Government seem prepared to praise charity events such as Live Aid and Comic Relief, but when it comes to finding money themselves, their attitude changes.

It is astonishing that, despite the crisis in Africa in the past decade, and during a period of massive individual giving in this country, British aid to Africa suffered a decline of 26·5 per cent. between 1979 and 1987. British people are generous, but the British Government apparently do not share their concern. That is a tragedy and an outrage.

The Government do not seem to know the meaning of the word "quality" when it comes to aid. They are far keener on providing easy loans for middle-income countries, and on winning contracts for British exporting firms than on providing effectively targeted aid. Where they do provide funds, they can be way off the mark. For instance, British aid to Bangladesh has tended to be concentrated on large infrastructure and industry projects such as the electric power project for Dhaka. Yet the majority of the population live in rural areas, so it is difficult to see what they will gain from those projects. Aid needs to be properly targeted if it is to do most good. That is why we must reject the notion of the Overseas Development Administration as an adjunct of the Department of Trade and Industry. If the Government supported British industry at home rather than manipulating aid funds for use abroad, we would all be better off.

Of course there is a role for British industry in overseas aid and aid giving is not totally altruistic. British firms will gain from the export of necessary items. However, as the Bill insists, aid should be targeted on the most needy. The Department of Trade and Industry should not be the master of policy.

Aid policy must be sensitive to environmental concerns and there should be a special place for women. There ought to be a women's unit within the ODA—as the Bill sets out—to take account of women's views and needs. In Africa, women form the majority of the food growers in the economy and their essential role in child rearing makes their importance for future development almost impossible to exaggerate. Yet, under the ODA United Kingdom aid programme, only one in six training places go to Third-world women.

We have a duty not only to make bilateral aid more effective. We have a key role to play also in multilateral aid, as over 40 per cent. of all United Kingdom aid is administered through international institutions. In 1987, £540 million of British aid went through multilateral institutions, principally the EC, the United Nations and the World Bank. The bulk of such moneys, however, is not used as efficiently as it could be. We are a major contributor to the EC—over half our multilateral aid goes to its European development fund and food aid programme. We should work towards an improvement in the administration of such aid. Far too much emphasis is still placed in the EC on large prestige projects. That, too, runs against the spirit of my Bill.

The overseas aid debate does not occupy a sufficiently high place on the political agenda. The problem does not lie with lack of concern at individual level, as is demonstrated by the response to the images of famine and despair when they are presented to the British public. It lies in large measure in the lack of information about the Government's niggardly role and the specific use of the aid programme. The Bill may help in a small way to stimulate debate.