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Expert Comment: PM announces overseas aid budget can be spent on military

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 28JAN11 - David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, speaks during the 'Special Address' at the Annual Meeting 2011 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 28, 2011...Copyright by World Economic Forum.swiss-image.ch/Photo by Moritz Hager. http://www.flickr.com/photos/worldeconomicforum/5433525697/ Licensed under CC BY-ND Friday 22 February 2013

In 2005, after a mass mobilization of people in the Make Poverty History movement, this government, and others in the G8, agreed to increase spending on overseas aid until it reached 0.7% of GDP. This year, Britain is finally set to reach that target, and there is a commitment to set this figure into law. There is a new campaign launched this year by a coalition of over 100 charities calling for action to end global hunger (Enough Food for Everyone IF), which is calling for a renewed commitment to this target across the G8 as one of its demands. So far, 50,754 people have signed up to this campaign (IF Campaign, 2013, accessed on 21st February 2013, 15:00).

Yet there does seem to be a problem with the public’s perception of aid. The most recent survey from the UK public opinions monitor suggests that although the majority of people (63%) support the principle of giving aid, less than 44% consider that this aid has a positive impact in developing countries, and only 17% think that UK aid is well spent. Just over half (51%) believe that aid spending should reduce, though most of those asked believed this spending to be much higher than it actually is (mean estimate 6.1% of UK national income) (UKPOM, 2013: 6-7)

Given that most people do not believe that overseas aid helps or is well spent, it is hardly surprising that support for it is falling. The front page of the Guardian on Thursday 21st February reported that Prime Minister David Cameron has agreed that the aid budget can be legitimately spent on military spending for security, demobilisation and peace-keeping.

This has been announced in a climate where the Ministry of Defence budget has been cut, and the Department for International Development is apparently finding it hard to justify its ring-fenced budget. Quite apart from the fact that 0.7% is a tiny proportion of income (the DFID budget is about £10bn), and many other arguments about diluting spending on development projects with spending on defence, does No 10 seriously believe that diverting money from aid projects into security spending will do anything to rehabilitate the reputation of British overseas aid spending?

Research suggests that people are more likely to engage with issues such as global poverty if their own attitudes lean more towards intrinsic values such as community, affiliation to friends and family, and self-development, rather than extrinsic values like material wealth, status or power (Crompton 2010 Common Cause: the case for working with our cultural values). Values are not fixed and can be primed by appropriate language, and so activating intrinsic values can increase support for problems such as global poverty even among people who tend to attach importance to extrinsic values. Linking aid spending with spending on defence and security links aid to extrinsic values such as power and status, and will do nothing to increase support for the aid budget. On the contrary, it will alienate those who are already predisposed to support it.

This seems to me to be a cynical attempt to compensate for a diminishing defence budget by taking money from an unpopular department, while hoping to boost support for that department as a consequence. For the reasons outlined above, spending money on guns and soldiers won’t improve the image of development aid. Let us hope, too, that this government doesn’t think it is legitimate to claim it has reached its promised target of 0.7% of income spent on aid, only to channel some of it back into the Ministry of Defence.



Image: DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 28JAN11 - David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, speaks during the 'Special Address' at the Annual Meeting 2011 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 28, 2011...Copyright by World Economic Forum.swiss-image.ch/Photo by Moritz Hager. http://www.flickr.com/photos/worldeconomicforum/5433525697/ Licensed under CC BY-ND

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