UK government does not cut development budget

Knowledge brokering21 Oct 2010

Owen Barder writes in his latest blog post about the spending plans for the coming four years the Conservative government in the UK presented yesterday. ‘Overall, this spending review is a seismic political event’, Barder writes, with spending cuts of $130 billion a year. ‘In that context, the coalition government’s decision to increase international development spending is remarkable’. Barder cites the UK finance minister George Osborne: ‘I can also confirm that this Coalition Government will be the first British government in history, and the first major country in the world, to honour the United Nations commitment on international aid. The Department for International Development’s budget will rise to £11.5 billion over the next four years. Overseas development will reach 0.7% of national income in 2013. This will halve the number of deaths caused by malaria. It will save the lives of 50,000 women in pregnancy and 250,000 newborn babies. Whether working behind the counter of a charity shop, or volunteering abroad, or contributing taxes to our aid budget, Britons can hold their heads up high and say – even in these difficult times, we will honour the promise we make to the very poorest in our world.’

Barder considers this ‘a considerable act of political bravery on the part of the Conservative-Liberal coalition’. Of course, he adds, ‘the development experts have quibbles and concerns, such as whether aid will be spent disproportionately in support of Britain’s security priorities, and how DFID will manage a fast rising aid budget while staff numbers are being reduced. These are, in my view, reasonable questions to ask; and I will be among those continuing to ask questions about whether and how aid spending can be used most effectively; but it seems churlish today to focus on these issues rather than the big picture of a substantial demonstration of political and financial commitment to overseas aid.’

Furthermore, the new UK government also announced heavy cuts in the Defense budget, which led commentators (like Julian Borger in The Guardian) to the observation that the British foreign policy will rely much more on ‘soft power’.

What would be the answer to this remarkable British announcement of the current government in the Netherlands (and many other donor countries), that chose to put the burden of the financial crisis they created themselves with the developing countries and resort to old fashioned nationalism? They may point to the fact that the British government will cut by half the spending for overhead and administration at the development ministry, the Department for International Development (DfID). This is indeed in line with Dutch plans to cut spending on government officials, and is a bit strange when at the same time the amount of money and thus policy that is to be handled at DfID will increase. They might also argue that a greater amount of the UK development budget (a third instead of a quarter) will be spent on countries in conflict, read, for example, Afghanistan. Which can be understood as a ‘militarisation’ of development policies, which indeed needs to be scrutinized. They finally can say that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is cut by 24%. Part of the Foreign Office cuts comes from stopping the funding of the BBC World Service. Its Dutch sister organisation, Radio Nederland Wereldomroep, is supposed to be funded by the Dutch development budget, according to the government plans in the Netherlands. The cuts in the UK Foreign Office budget might mean that diplomatic efforts may need to be financed or taken over by DfID. While this can be explained as hidden cuts in the development budget, one can also see it more positively: the interests of developing countries or collective global interests will be much higher on the agenda of British diplomacy than the short term national interests, if taken care of by DfID.

Anyway, if even their political friends in the UK, wUho announced these severe budget cuts yesterday, leave out the spending for the poorer parts of the world, other donor governments like that in the Netherlands can not blame it to leftist hobbies or so. Probably the only thing they can do is keep silent in their embarrassment and shame.