Motion to Take Note

Part of EAC Report: Development Aid – in the House of Lords at 7:48 pm on 22 October 2012.

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Photo of The Bishop of Leicester The Bishop of Leicester Convenor of the Lords Spiritual 7:48, 22 October 2012

My Lords, I add my thanks to those of this House to the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, for bringing the subject of development aid to our attention. Crucial to the public discussion of this subject is a central question, to which the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, drew attention earlier, about how the debate is framed-the question raised in sharp terms by the report of the Select Committee. Are we, as other noble Lords have said, to spend our time and energy discussing whether to backtrack on the Government's commitment to 0.7% of GNI or could we move on to engage in what I believe would be a different but more fruitful debate about the effectiveness of our aid spend and the effective scrutiny of that spend?

In August of this year, I spent two weeks in Tanzania visiting our link dioceses of Mount Kilimanjaro and Kiteto. The advantage of visits to churches is that in African culture you travel straight to the heart of local communities; you meet the key leaders in towns and villages; and you see both the hope and despair of populations rarely visited by politicians or even NGOs. You are also brought face to face with unavoidable moral questions, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, suggested. What is the responsibility today and tomorrow for the unrecoverable childhoods of those stricken with curable disease and avoidable malnutrition? How do we calibrate responsibility to these children against our responsibility to the children of our own country? What sort of moral value do we put on the obligation of the United Kingdom to keep its commitments, repeated in recent years at United Nations, G8 and EU summits?

These questions stand in some contrast to the tone of the Select Committee report, which lists the great range of complex issues on which, according to the report, experts are not agreed. The range of disagreements is vast and includes questions about the effectiveness of aid in promoting growth, the forms of aid most appropriate to achieving independence, the best way to channel aid, the relationship between aid and the need for better governance, the relationship between aid and the need to combat corruption, and so on. This list cannot be used as an alibi for reneging on our commitment to a target. Rather, it precisely illustrates my point. If the Government are to wait for consensus among experts on these issues before becoming resolute in standing by their original commitments, we will be left looking indecisive and incoherent in a fundamental area of government policy.

This House can properly feel some pride in what has been achieved through British aid programmes to date. In 2009-10, UK aid ensured that 15 million people had enough food to eat and it provided more than 1.5 million people with clean water. The United Kingdom's aid helped to build or upgrade 1,500 kilometres of roads, and in 2012 to 2015 it will help more than 77 million people to access financial services. It can be argued that, far from being unaccountable, DfID is one of the most scrutinised departments in Whitehall, with the Independent Commission for Aid Impact and the International Development Select Committee, in addition to the National Audit Office.

If we could move on from the debate about 0.7% of UK income, we could reach the point of discussing other, more fruitful and urgent questions such as the relative merits of microfinance, social entrepreneurship and grass-roots advocacy. It is after all commonplace in other areas of government spending to explore these kinds of questions, so why is the debate about aid not framed in this way? That would allow us to move on to deal with other crucial matters, including how we plan for a future beyond aid, how we tackle global forces that keep people poor, how we address the tax avoidance that creates the huge inequalities that hurt the poorest and most marginalised and how we push for international co-operation to end the tax-haven secrecy that preserves these inequalities.

Our polarised debate seems to assume that aid is often seen as the only source of external funding and that external funding is all there is to development. This is a sterile and erroneous position. Important though aid is, access to markets and technology, especially green technology, is arguably far more important to a country's strategy for development than any external financial assistance. Aid is but one part of the solution, not the whole solution. I hope that our debate this evening will help us to move on from narrow terms focused on government targets.