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Warm words not enough as white paper fails to convince aid charities

This news post is 6 months old

Financing is the elephant in the room, and UK government fails to address this

International aid charities have given a muted and lukewarm response to the UK government’s much trumpeted White Paper on International Development.

Warm words on re-prioritising development following years of back-sliding and a commitment to achieving progress to now badly off-track Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were welcomed – but there was a glaring lack of any assurances or concrete detail on financing.

Indeed, and fitting in with a framework which sees international development as a front for UK foreign policy, a major thrust of the paper was about countering the growing global influence of China.

Over the past few years the UK Tory government has scrapped the Department for International Development and has cut aid pledges from 0.7 per cent of national income to 0.5.

There was no commitment in the new white paper to reinstate this funding, even though it was supposed to be a temporary measure caused by the financial pressures of the pandemic.

The paper – launched at a global food summit in London and seized upon by new foreign secretary David Cameron as a platform for his tenure - makes clear the challenges posed by climate and conflict and the need for strong international partnerships. There is also a focus on resilience and women’s rights.

However, charities and NGOs working in the aid sector said funding – or lack of - is the major elephant in the room.

Oxfam’s head of policy and advocacy, Katy Chakraborrty, said:Without a realistic source of new money aimed at poverty reduction it won’t come close to meeting those challenges.

“The failure to acknowledge that the SDGs are so far off track because of staggering levels of global economic inequality is a glaring omission - one that matters because the solutions need to fit the scale of the problem.

“The foreign secretary is right to point out that development today cannot be about rich countries doing things to others but must be about working as partners with developing countries. But the government’s enthusiasm for private financing filling the gap left by broken UK aid commitments ignores that such approaches repeatedly fail to deliver the scale of funding claimed and come with huge risks of exacerbating poverty and inequality.

"The strong focus on using financial institutions like British International Investment is of real concern given the evidence that this is open to abuse and has caused real harm including the violation of rights in crucial sectors like health and education. Neither do they build the kind of economies that work for women.

“We should have seen more ambition on debt, where private creditors are not being forced to change, and on taxation where developing country governments are spearheading a new UN-led global approach.

“It is not good enough for the UK to continue to push its aid commitments into the future. If the government is serious about ending extreme poverty and tackling climate change, it needs to look at the root causes of global inequality and look for ways to raise money from those who have most and who have caused the most damage.”

Scottish aid group SCIAF said that the lack of even a recognition of ‘loss and damage’ principles in the white paper was a glaring and alarming omission.

Loss and damage is aimed at compensating and making more resilient those communities most affected by the climate catastrophe and forms a major tranche of aid groups’ demands.

Ben Wilson, SCIAF’s head of advocacy, said: “The white paper represents a very welcome U-turn from the UK government on international development.

“But there is a lot that is missing. The paper fails to set out the full scale of reforms needed to challenge the unjust structures which perpetuate global inequality. Much more is needed on debt cancellation, cracking down on tax evasion and global trade reform. Ultimately, we need a return to our legally binding 0.7% commitments to aid, and to find new money by taxing polluters to pay for their climate damages. 

“With Cop28 just days away, it is a huge disappointment that there is nothing in this paper about the crucial issue of loss and damage.  

“This is a step in the right direction, but falls far short of the scale of ambition needed for the UK to genuinely play a transformational role in tackling global injustice across the world.” 

There has been no public response so far from Scotland’s International Development Agency, but Bond, the UK aid sector umbrella group, was fairly even handed in its assessment.

However, the group’s Gideon Rabinowitz picked up on financing.

He writes: “there is a nagging question of how they [aid and SDG commitments] will be resourced when the UK aid budget remains at 0.5% of national income, with a third of this currently being used to support refugees in the UK.

“Universal access to basic services, for example, requires significant upfront investments now, and the government is not planning to return spending to 0.7% until close to the 2030 – the apparent end date for this white paper.”