Conservative development policy; quality, not quantity

"Our aim is to spend more on what works, and end funding for what doesn't."

The Conservative party's International Development green paper has a lot to commend it (to read in full, click here). An acknowledgement that economic growth is vital to broader social improvement is married to an appreciation that development aid must be spent better, and both are underlined by a realisation that public support for development aid is 'soft'.

Informed by much of the 'compassionate conservatism' that has seemingly taken a back seat in recent months, the document will infuriate as many as it will please. Some of the suggestions, such as the 'MyAid Fund', will be seen as gimmicky (and easily hijacked). The commitments to 'green development' will lead some to suspect that development spending will continue to be directed as much by western politics as actual foreign needs.

The real problem with the green paper though, is the continued 'ring-fencing' of the development budget. Despite some of the tough talk about 'aid effectiveness', many in the 'Overseas Aidocracy' (to borrow a phrase from Libby Purves) will sleep well tonight, content in the knowledge that the 'ring-fencing' and difficulties in measuring aid effectiveness should ensure the continued delivery of taxpayer funding to all manner of causes.

The UK will allocate £9.1 billion to international development next year (2010-11), rising to 0.7% of Gross National Product (GNP, or GN Income) by 2013. This is the spending plan which the Conservatives have pledged to 'ring-fence'. That 0.7% commitment would mean an effective doubling of our current aid budget, which currently runs at around 0.35% of GNI.

Which may be all well and good if the Conservatives really had a way of establishing what development aid works and what doesn't, but doubters are right to be sceptical. Compared to other countries, much of our £9.1 billion will be spent 'relatively' well. However, a lot won't be, lost in waste or counter-productive initiatives. It will be lost in expensive consultations, handouts and charity advocacy. Jasmine Whitbread, Chief Executive of Save the Children, writes in the Times today that ineffective aid projects are a thing of the 1980's (a point made in the Green paper too). They aren't. Maybe fish factories in the middle of deserts are rarer, but internet cafes with no access to the internet are still being built, and some charities that carry out no aid work are in receipt of taxpayers development spending.

More importantly, the measurements of 'effectiveness' are (or at least should be) highly contentious; the number of children in school has increased dramatically over the past ten years Ms Whitbread writes, which is true, but at the same time most developing countries have seen a matching rise in teacher / pupil ratios. When class rooms are packed to the hilt, quality of learning declines. Deciding what constitutes aid effectiveness will be a hard job (one that has defied previous DfID administrations). Until the Conservatives have cracked it, they should at best commit to current levels of spending, but not to major increases.

Ring-fencing budgets has an obvious political appeal, but with the international aid budget - and with health too - there is plenty to cut and reapportion before we start talking about increases. Importantly too, as we encourage NGO's and Governmental organisations to spend development funding better, essentially guaranteeing them current funding levels is counter-intuitive; the threat of budget squeezes tends to focus minds. Unfortunately though, with large and influential charities such as Ms Whitbread's in receipt of considerable taxpayer funding (Save the Children received £11.4 million last year) the political pressure for 'ring-fencing' of the DfID budget will be considerable.    

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