Chris Game


There were plenty of headline stories following Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s recent Spending Review – the cost of COVID-19, the scale of borrowing, the death of Diego Maradona (obviously), public sector workers’ pay freeze.  And almost everywhere – notwithstanding, or precisely because of, its modest overall fiscal significance – the Chancellor’s intention to “slash” or “temporarily loosen” overseas aid funding from 0.7% to 0.5% of our Gross National Income (GNI).


He made it sound like just another, albeit unfortunate and regrettable, policy choice: that “sticking rigidly to spending 0.7% of our national income on overseas aid is difficult to justify to the British people”. No acknowledgement even that it had been a proud plank in the party’s last four manifestoes (for trainspotters, pp.117, 75, 30 and 53), though that was, of course, quickly pointed out.  As, eventually, was the fact that, oh yes, it was statute law he was casually proposing to break.


Here's a thing, though.  In amongst all the emoting and protests of former Prime Ministers, do you recall any mention of a Michael Moore?  No, not the American documentary filmmaker and political activist – though he would doubtless have views.


I mean the less internationally renowned former Liberal Democrat MP, who was proving an apparently perfectly adequate Scottish Secretary in the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition Cabinet until in 2013 Cameron/Clegg wanted someone more “combatively” opposed to Scottish independence in the approaching referendum.


Following which, Moore’s Berwickshire seat was one of the SNP’s 50 gains in the 2015 General Election – spelling the parliamentary end of him.  Meanwhile, however, he had used his time beneficially by coming second in the 2014 Private Members’ Bill (PMB) ballot to determine who would get the most promising chances to make legislation of their choice.


The ballot, though, is the easy bit.  Even with this kick-start, just nine ballot PMBs tabled in the 2017-19 Parliament actually reached the Statute Book – though, perhaps surprisingly, several were on obviously important but potentially divisive topics: consent to organ donation, protection from stalking, civil partnerships for opposite sex couples. 


Plus, back in 2014-15, Michael Moore’s choice and achievement, the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act.  Big title, huge and controversial subject – something it had taken my whole adult lifetime to enact. So, was he lucky, or do these things depend on knowing something – or someone?


In 1958, the World Council of Churches argued that church and private donations, though equivalent to roughly 0.5% of ‘rich’ countries’ GNI, were quite incapable of significantly raising ‘poor’ countries’ living standards. At least 1% of the GNI of economically advanced countries was required, and, arbitrary as it sounded even then, that was the figure adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1960, and backed – mostly as a feel-good aspiration – by rich-country governments.


What’s that – something missing?  Yes, you last read that key word ‘aid’ in the quote from Sunak’s speech. These early 1% pledges contained no direct references to aid, never mind definitions. Aid was there, obviously, but in amongst the private investment, export credits and commercial loans.


These latter you might call quid pro quos – ‘something for something’.  Aid’s whole point, however, is it that it is quid pro nihilo – something for nothing, as the Council of Churches probably envisaged, but not necessarily national governments.  A specific aid goal was required.


That took another decade, but in 1970 the UN General Assembly proclaimed that “each economically advanced country will progressively increase its official assistance to the developing countries and will exert its best efforts to reach a minimum net amount of 0.7%” of its GNP/GNI at market prices by 1975.


Yes, a call, not commitment; a definite date, but just “best efforts”; and, inevitably, no sanctions.  No pretence either that this was by any definition the ‘right’ level of resources rich countries should be devoting to helping poor ones. But we and our politicians have lived with 0.7% for 45 years now – and that surely is its great virtue and public importance.


It wasn’t that widely publicised, but back in 1975 the UK’s actual overseas development spending was 0.4% of GNI, little over half the 0.7% to which we had committed ourselves.  It just hit 0.5% before dropping under the Thatcher and Major Governments to eventually 0.27%, almost doubled under Labour to 0.5%, then plunged again following the 2008 financial crisis.


But jump ahead now to July 2016.  Remember Cameron’s emotional words as he departed 10 Downing Street?  They included the following:

“And I think of the people on the other side of the world who would not have clean drinking water, the chance to go to school, or even be alive, were it not for our decision to keep our aid promises to the poorest people and the poorest countries in our world.”


His pride seemed justified, and he might almost have said “my decision”. The Coalition Government’s post-financial crisis recovery programme was exceedingly harsh, but there were protected islands of spending: the NHS, green technology investment, international aid.  All were personal Cam-causes, part of his Conservative Party rebranding mission, but the last was perhaps the most remarkable.


Having committed his party in opposition and its 2010 Election manifesto to the 0.7% target – and considerably assisted by Sutton Coldfield MP Andrew Mitchell as International Development Secretary – he oversaw annual Official Development Assistance rise from under £10 billion (2017/18 prices) and under 0.5% of GNI in 2011 to £14 billion and, in an historic first, reaching the totemic 0.7% in 2013.


Internationally, the UK became the first G8 country to hit the 0.7% target, and in the EU behind only Sweden, Denmark and Luxembourg. And this from a Coalition Government nearly 40% of whose Conservative MPs were judged in a fascinating study by Heppell and colleagues as ‘Aid Sceptics’ or outright Critics.


Two brief concluding observations. One, in 2014-15 Michael Moore’s Bill was pushing at a door already half-opened by Cameron. Two, actually planning to break the law is surely at least slightly different from explaining away having done so inadvertently – or doesn’t that apply to Ministers?


Author biography

Chris Game is an Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham and a member of the PSA. He is the joint-author of the best-selling introductory text on Local Government in the United Kingdom. This article was first published in the Birmingham Post and has been republished with the permission of the author. Image credit: Number 10/Flickr.