A sting in the tail: Conservative plans to change the definition of ‘aid’

The Manifesto 2017 blog post was long, very long, and the really important bit was buried at the end. So kudos if you made it all the way through. But for those with less time to meander through my stream of consciousness thoughts on the various pledges and promises on international development made in the manifestos of Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem parties, let’s cut to the chase.

There is one big policy difference between otherwise largely similar promises (to protect the 0.7% commitment on spending, to focus on health, education, climate change), and it is a change that could completely undermine the importance of the 0.7% commitment.

Buried deep in the Conservative manifesto is the following statement:

“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.”

So what is this about? What are the rules that the Conservatives want to change? Aid can only be counted as official aid if it is for the purposes of economic development and welfare; and if it is concessional with at least 25% in grant form. But the rules referred to here are the restrictions on what counts, or does not count, as aid.

  • The costs of military equipment or services are not counted as aid (the military can be involved in the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and the costs of that delivery can be counted)
  • Anti-terrorism activities do not count as aid
  • Peacekeeping expenditures are mostly excluded from consideration as aid
  • Cultural activities count if they are aimed at building cultural capacity of recipient countries, but not if they are one-off tours by donor country artists, sportspeople, musicians, etc.

Is this an attempt to send Sting to Senegal for a one-off concert? Or an exhibition of Damien Hurst bejewelled skulls in Bangladesh? Does the government want David Beckham to lead an all-stars football team to play an exhibition match in Cameroon? All of which should count towards that 0.7% target?

Of course not. This is primarily about spending through the military (and in this aspiration for a change of rules, the US is a willing partner), and to a lesser extent spending by other government departments in the UK, in the UK, but which can fall under the ‘aid’ budget line.

By allowing more military spending to count as official aid, the Conservatives can meet both their commitment to maintaining the 0.7% spending level for aid, but also meet its commitment to increased defence spending through reallocation rather than finding actual new resources. It means counter-terrorism activities can be funded through aid budgets (would Prevent become an international development activity?) And it would allow for a closer identification of UK national strategic interests, and development spending.

This is a terrible idea, which would compound the problems caused by the securitisation of aid over the past two decades. A full-out assault on what remains of the barrier between humanitarian and military activity in complex emergencies would undermine not only the core understanding of what aid is and should be, but create suspicion and hostility towards development actors globally.

It’s pretty likely that the Conservatives will win the election. At which point, this will become a key battleground for the future of aid, not just in the UK, but globally. Should this be enacted, there will be less for poverty reduction, less for climate change, less for health and education support. There will be more instability, more protracted conflicts, and greater threats to both humanitarian actors and civilian populations. So, if you need one, here’s another reason to vote on June 8th. And when (if?) May returns to Number 10 on June 9th, start planning right then how to stop this particular idea in its tracks.


[If you want to read my thoughts on all three manifestos, and more detail on the promises, pledges and commitments, they in the previous post here]


About Mike Jennings

I am Reader in International Development and Head of the Department of Development Studies at the SOAS, University of London. I research, teach and write on Africa, and the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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