Overseas aid is back in the headlines this week as the Government starts to rebuild our hurricane-wracked Overseas Territories in the Caribbean.
Yet due to strict rules set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), none of the £57 million currently pledged to this task can be taken out of the legally-mandated aid budget.
According to the Daily Telegraph, the Government’s hands are tied with regards to the OECD’s rules because David Cameron enshrined British obedience too them in law.
Much like the 0.7 per cent of GDP aid spending minimum, this is an example of the new and unhelpful trend amongst British legislators to make a virtue of confining executive discretion in rather weird ways.
In the case of the 0.7 spending floor, the observed effect has been to force the Department for International Development (DfID) to shovel money out of the door even when it can’t find enough high-quality projects to spend it on, resulting in both plenty of stories about frivolous projects and the more serious fleecing of the Department by consultants, neither of which have done much to improve the public’s dubious opinion of the commitment.
Binding ourselves to the OECD, meanwhile, has filled the papers with pictures of devastated British dependencies, accompanied by stories explaining that an international body in which the United Kingdom is one of “a panel of 30 countries” deems them too wealthy to help. Again, the public image of overseas aid is not enhanced.
Nor does this restriction make any sense if you take the view, as Cameron did, that aid spending is a way of enhancing British soft power. At one point Andrew Mitchell, during his own stint as International Development Secretary, even suggested that Britons might one day be ‘as proud of Government spending on international aid as they are of the Queen and the Armed Forces‘.
Yet removing ministerial discretion over our aid budget deeply undermines the Government’s capacity to wield soft power, and all the attendant bad press means Mitchell’s dream of aid as a point of patriotic pride is farther away than ever.
In the much-maligned Conservative Manifesto of the summer, Theresa May pledged to do something about this. The relevant section reads thus:
“There are still ways that we can improve the way that taxpayers’ money is used to help the world’s most vulnerable people. We do not believe that international definitions of development assistance always help in determining how money should be spent, on whom and for what purpose. So we will work with like-minded countries to change the rules so that they are updated and better reflect the breadth of our assistance around the world. If that does not work, we will change the law to allow us to use a better definition of development spending, while continuing to meet our 0.7 per cent target.”
Elsewhere on this site this morning I wrote about how Parliament has been diminished by the modern trend to farm authority out to international institutions and quangos. Brexit offers a welcome opportunity to reverse that trend and reintroduce direct political authority – and thus accountability – to huge areas of government.
But whilst the EU aptly embodies the problem, this row with the OECD demonstrates that it is not the limit of it. The Government should carry forward the spirit of 2016 and take back control of the aid budget.