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]

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UK Election 2017 Manifestos and International Development: common ground and clear water

With the election coming up, I thought it would be interesting to look at the commitments to international development in the manifestos of the Labour Party, Conservatives and Lib Dems.

The day-to-day realities of election campaigns tend to soon undermine the carefully calibrated and plotted plans of campaign managers. So this election that was intended (by the Conservatives) to be the Brexit Election has already moved in new directions as the policies put forward in the manifestos come under scrutiny and attack.

International development rarely features centrally, and mostly not even peripherally, in election campaigns. In part this reflects the fact that, by-and-large, elections are fought on domestic issues not international ones, and where foreign policy issues do feature in the debate, they are often around reactions to wars and other military ventures (the 2005 election in aftermath of the disastrous Iraq war, which saw many people switch from Labour, though not enough to prevent re-election; and the 1983 election which saw a big increase in the Conservative majority following the Falklands conflict).

But the lack of debate also points to a level of historical consensus around policy in this area, a consensus that since Cameron publicly committed to spending 0.7% of national income on international development as part of the strategy to detoxify the Conservatives, has grown. The transformation of the Department for International Development into one of the largest and most influential global development organisations has further made it harder to highlight showstopping policies that might lead DFID in radical new directions.

The general consensus is not a new thing. Generally, Britain’s overseas development activity has had broad support, for overall approach if not always on specific policies. Baroness Linda Chalker, minister for overseas development from 1989 to 1997 was largely respected across party lines and by many working in the sector. The shift to a new ministry – the Department for International Development (DFID) under Blair’s first Labour administration in 1997 – was a shift in scale and ambition, more than a radical break in policy.

But the creation of DFID has had important consequences, not just for international development (with far more resources available, DFID has been far more ambitious over the past two decades, and has turned into a global leader in international development), but also for foreign policy and Britain’s global presence. This transition has quickened since 2010, and the gutting of foreign office budgets as part of the Conservative-led austerity drive. As DFID’s budgets were not only protected but increased, that of its former home, the FCO, declined. And power has followed the money. The DFID in-country offices increasingly have more influence than the ambassadors and high commissioners. Indeed, many new FCO appointments have come from DFID rather than up-through the FCO ranks following the traditional route to diplomatic service (some voices in the FCO are complaining that the brightest of bright sparks are choosing to go to DFID rather than FCO, further undermining its influence within government).

This means that DFID and UK’s international development strategy really should matter in an election, especially one which is still dominated by questions as to Britain’s place in the world, to whom it has its closest links, and how it seeks to promote global change. International development manifesto commitments should, perhaps, be given greater scrutiny.

But if there is so much common ground, where are the key points of difference? Are there any? The main differences are less in policy than in the tone and emphasis the promises imply. And this is not unimportant: tone matters. We can see subtle shifts in policy change and direction flowing from the transition from Clare Short’s period as Minister to Baroness Valerie Amos, and subsequently Hilary Benn, in 2003. Similarly, from 2010, with the appointment of first Andrew Mitchell under the new Conservative administration, again a tonal shift, this time one that saw a gradual turn towards emphasising jobs, economic growth and the private sector that continued under Justine Greening. And with Priti Patel, a further shift towards identifying international development policy with UK national interests, especially post-Brexit. The impact on policy is subtle, and emerges slowly, but it does impact.

So tone matters, and here, more so than in 2015, we can perhaps see real differences opening up, differences that could potentially if not change direction, then mark a slight but significant march off the centre line depending on who wins.


The common ground

The big area of common ground is the 0.7% commitment, found in all the Big 3 manifestos. So this means international development spending is safe, right? Well, perhaps not. But we’ll come to that at the end (spoiler alert, it definitely isn’t safe – at least, not in its current form, and it is an important potential change).

The specific promises for what DFID would focus on under Labour, Lib Dem or Conservative governments are hardly surprising: health, climate change, education, and to on extent taxation).

Health, a longstanding priority of DFID under previous Labour and Conservative administrations, remains central. All three promise to invest in research for treatments and programmes for preventable diseases. The Labour Party pledges to create a Centre for Universal Health Coverage to push for UHC across developing countries: a policy that sounds more radical than it is (even the World Bank is a supporter of UHC). The Conservatives identify microbial resistance as a key area for investment; the Lib Dems go for the standard (but important) HIV, TB and malaria, and talk of research for vaccines. But the Lib Dems also promise that as a response to “the US government’s dangerous and anti-science attacks” on vaccination and family planning, they will protect global spending in these areas. On balance, the Lib Dems look more carefully thought out and precise in their plans, and their promise to support family planning and vaccination is important.

The environment and climate change are central to all three, too. The Lib Dems make much of the need to build international cooperation, and strengthen multi-lateral responses against isolationism; with Labour pointing to the Paris Declaration commitments as a priority. The Tories don’t frame their response in such an internationalist language, but do add habitat degradation and species loss to their list of priorities. Again, no big differences here, but perhaps top marks again to the Lib Dems for the greater emphasis on global action, with Labour a close second.

Labour and the Lib Dems both promise to tackle the thorny issue of taxation. Labour promise decisive action on tax havens (though the manifesto focuses largely on UK overseas territories and crown dependencies, ignoring the haven that is the City of London). The Lib Dems are more interesting, focusing not just on tax havens, but on ensuring British companies pay more taxes in the developing countries in which they operate, and promising large companies will be required to show how much tax they pay in each country.

Meanwhile the Tories and Lib Dems both promise to prioritise education. The Conservative manifesto pledges to focus on education of women and girls. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems move beyond bland generic statements and add some specifics, saying they will develop a global education strategy and push for global commitments to ending the  funding shortages which result in 263 million children missing school.

So if on the big areas (how much should be spent, health, education, climate, tax) there is broad agreement across all three (or in some cases across two), where are the differences?


A labour commitment for the Labour Party

In addition to the commitments described above, the Labour Party also promises:

  • An annual report to parliament on how DFID has performed in relation to meeting the SDG targets.
  • The reinstatement of the Civil Society Challenge Fund (which ran from 2000 – 2015), and the closure of which was seen as further evidence by some of growing antagonism between the Conservative government and civil society groups (especially NGOs) who in the absence of an effective opposition, were often leading the criticisms of government policy.
  • Least developed countries to have full access to UK markets to protect export revenues: a continuation of existing policy.
  • New regulations will ensure for-profit DFID contractors must spend money on reducing poverty, not on generating profits (a policy that also looks more radical than it is: such companies will be able to still bid for projects, and demands for greater transparency and regulation are fairly universal, from left-wing political parties to orthodox international finance and development institutions).
  • A Labour government would seek to improve conditions in global supply chains. British businesses operating globally will be required to respect human rights for workers, ensure compliance with regulations on environmental sustainability, and regulations on corporate responsibility for abuses in global supply chains will be tightened (motivated, no doubt, by relatively recent scandals in textile factories, as well as less publicised, but equally shocking treatment of workers producing goods for UK markets). Workers producing goods for UK supermarkets will be protected by UK regulations no matter where they live.
  • The Labour Party also promises a review on refugees through a cross departmental strategy on meeting international obligations in respect of the refugee crisis within 100 days. Disappointingly, no actual commitment to honour previously-made commitments to child refugees at the very least. And will there even be 100 days before crisis hits, if Macron decided to push for changes to the current border regime in Calais.

The Labour manifesto signals a tonal break with DFID discourse under the Conservatives. The focus on the private sector is quite clearly being replaced by greater emphasis on civil society and the role of the state. There is a shift from looking to the importance of job creation as a means of reducing poverty, to protecting the rights, conditions and treatment of the workers already in employment. Unsurprisingly, given the rest of the manifesto commitments, British companies could expect more regulations over their foreign activities; and in the long-run would we see a decline in the number of for-profit development organisations bidding for projects, and an increase in consortia of non-profits?


Trying hard: the Lib-Dem commitments

To seasoned manifesto watchers, the Lib Dems have often come up on top with carefully thought out proposals, and appear more embedded in the language and discourse of international development (reflecting, perhaps, a greater influence of development experts in writing policy in this area).

In terms of tone, this is (unsurprisingly, given other pledges around Brexit) a set of development commitments that put their internationalist credentials front and centre: calling for commitments to international cooperation and rules; supporting multilateral organisations against the threats from the rising ride of unilateral, bilateral and isolationist politics. For Lib Dems, the purpose of international aid is to “promote the liberal values of human rights and democracy throughout the world.”

Kudos as well for use of the term ‘resilience’, showing someone has been paying attention to DFID and other development organisation publications and project-calls. The Lib Dem manifesto is bang on trend with its promise to focus on building resilience in poor countries against disasters through investing in healthcare and infrastructure, and training emergency response teams, as well as generously responding to new humanitarian crises.

And respect, too, for responding directly to He Who Shall Not Be Named But Whose Tweets Cannot Be Avoided, in openly attacking “the US government’s dangerous and anti-science attacks” on vaccination and family planning. This is especially interesting given the questioning of Farron over his stance on abortion. Let’s hope the Yellow-Haired One doesn’t read the manifesto, or his surety [sic] that he is the most maligned politician in history will be reaffirmed.


What do you mean that doesn’t count? The Tory manifesto and international development

The only major difference in actual focus offered by the Conservative manifesto is a focus on modern slavery. But there are some important tonal differences, ones that will have an impact on policy. And there is also a nasty sting in the tail.

In terms of tone, the most significant is the way that the purpose of international development is framed. The manifesto states:

British  aid  helps  millions  and  is  a  powerful  statement  of  Global  Britain’s  place  in  the  world.  It  protects  our  interests:  by  building  a  safer,  healthier,  more  prosperous  world,  we  can  protect  our  own  people  from  disease,  conflict  and  instability.

This focus on international development as a means for protecting and enforcing ‘our’ interests has been an increasingly dominant feature under the direction of the latest Minister for International Development, Priti Patel, who has even suggested UK aid should be used to help secure post-Brexit trade deals. So this naked self-interest is not surprising, even if it is disappointing that it is framed in such a way in the manifesto.

Whilst the Lib Dems and Labour focus on human rights and internationalist values (to a greater or lesser degree), the Conservatives also write about the importance of extending “around the world those values that we believe to be right.” Those values?

“The United Kingdom will be a champion for an open economy, free trade, and the free flow of investment, ideas and information.”


“We will continue to promote democracy, the rule of law, property entitlements, a free and open media, and accountable institutions in countries and societies across the world.” [my emphasis]

In other words, the steady shift in the framing of DFID’s mission towards building up the private sector, encouraging and helping create conditions for foreign direct investment, and seeing job creation and economic growth as the solution for poverty, will continue under a Conservative government.

And now the sting in the tail. And this should be deeply worrying to anyone involved in or who cares about international development and poverty reduction, not least because it is extremely likely that May will be returned to Number 10 on June 8th. Hidden amongst all the nice pledges to end the subjugation and mutilation of women, end slavery, eradicate child poverty etc, is a more troubling pledge:

“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.”

What is going on here? Aid (or official development assistance, to give its proper title) as we know is defined as funds which are provided to promote economic development and welfare, which is concessional, and has a grant element of at least 25%. But importantly there are other restrictions on what can, or more importantly cannot, be counted as aid. Governments can claim as aid the costs of military delivery of humanitarian aid. But:

  • The costs of military equipment or services are not counted as aid
  • 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.

One has to assume that the Conservatives are not worried about whether they can send Ed Sheeran on a global tour, or the triumphant Bournemouth football team (finished 9th, you know) to play East Africa’s finest teams, and have it count towards the 0.7%. This is about the use of aid by and through the military.

The Conservatives are desperate to be able to build military spending in some capacity into official aid spending. This not only relaxes pressure on budgets (by transferring some of the commitment to 0.7% to the military, and meet the increased spending commitments it has promised on defence through a reallocation of funds rather than finding new resources); it would also further cement the idea that international aid is part of the UK’s toolkit for working towards UK national strategic interests, by more closely linking military strategic interests with those of UK-supported international development.

They are not alone in this ambition. The US would also like to see a relaxation of the rules to allow military spending to count. It’s worth noting that this would be a spectacularly bad idea. There is a reason there is a (now threatened) consensus on the role of the military in aid. The securitisation of aid over the past couple of decades has already served to weaken the previously harder division between humanitarian and military intervention sectors, with poor consequences for the safety of both humanitarian actors and civilians with whom they are working, and making conflicts more intractable through their internationalisation and embedding in outside interests. A full-out assault on what remains of the barrier would undermine the central defining feature of aid: that it is for economic development and welfare in recipient countries.

So, given a likely Tory victory, this is going to be a key battleground for those who care about international aid, not as a means for narrow national self-interest, but as an idea that is greater, wider, more encompassing and internationalist than the Conservative vision. I started off by suggesting that the manifestos reflected differences of tone more than of policy. But here is a major policy difference, and one that, if enacted, could destroy the idea of aid as we know it. So, my pessimism over the likely outcome notwithstanding, here’s yet another reason to go out and vote on June 8th.

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It’s Comic Relief Day, so why am I not laughing?

So it’s Comic Relief day here in the UK, the biennial mixture of fun, sentimentality and seriousness as the nation’s comedians attempt to make as open our wallets in response to laughter and tears. Celebrities will undertake ‘challenges’ to bring home to us what poverty looks and feels like. Across the nation’s offices, schools and institutions, people will be doing funny* things for charity. Serious  politicians and other national figures will make fools of themselves for a good cause.

And the money will start rolling in. Comic Relief started as one of the responses to the Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s, alongside Band Aid and Live Aid. It was founded by Lenny Henry and Richard Curtis back in 1985, though the first Comic Relief Day (and the big TV show) was in 1988, raising around £15 million that night. The last extravaganza (2015) raised over £78 million, taking the total amount raised during the lifetime of Comic Relief to over £1 billion.

Comic Relief is, then, huge in terms of the money it raises, and the influence it has had in shaping people’s awareness and understanding of problems of poverty across the world. So why does it make me feel like the miserable sod standing in the corner as everyone else has fun, fun, fun? Like the Grinch out to ruin other people’s joy in doing good whilst having a good time?

Partly it is the mawkishness of the actual TV event. I find the contrasts to be jarring: between the comedy; and the serious piece set in a refugee camp or slum, a celebrity surrounded by children, probably crying; the bit that shows how even in adversity people living in poverty can find laughter; and the other bit that tells us what we can learn from them (this isn’t just a one way street you know).

But a dislike of the format isn’t my real objection. It’s not even the fact that underpinning the whole event is the idea that the real reason we should pay attention and care is because a celebrity is telling us to. There is no point in bemoaning the fact that people pay more attention to issues when celebrities front campaigns: it’s not new, nor is it especially surprising (was there someone like me moaning about poets Coleridge and Shelley being poster-children for the sugar boycott in the 1790s as part of the protest against slavery?).

My problem is with the presentation of poverty that events such Comic Relief perpetuate. The narrative of poverty is presented in a simplified way – as it should be. Trying to engage public understanding needs that message to be relatable and understandable. But simple is not the same as simplistic. Comic Relief (and other similar events) reinforce the idea that poverty is a technical issue: send more money, build more water pipes, send more children to school, and problems are solved.

What is almost completely absent is the politics of poverty. But if we want to understand why poverty exists in the places that it does, amongst particular communities rather than others, and why it is so difficult for the poor to extricate themselves from those conditions, we need to confront the politics underlying the causes and consequences of that poverty. We need to ask how the decisions we make in our day-to-day lives in what we buy, what we do and how we do it, are part of the problem. The failure of leading powers to move on climate change is condemning hundreds of millions to an ever-increasing precarious existence. The result of the cultural war on issues such as abortion in the US will cost millions of lives across Africa. Donor-pushed policies on governance reforms, health reforms, etc leave welfare services scarred and unable to meet demands. Decisions on tariffs, protectionist barriers, global tax regimes deny governments in the global South of the resources they need to develop, leaving them reliant on aid (increasingly presented as the benign charity of the global north).

Where politics does appear, it is presented as a problem within the affected countries. Expect lots on corruption tonight, but a lot less on the complicity of UK-based financial institutions in facilitating corruption. Expect even less of a debate as to whether corruption is necessarily bad for development (ie to foster development do you need to tackle corruption; or is corruption reduced as countries develop economically and socially). How much mention of the growing strength of democracy in Africa will there be? Or acknowledgement that, where some presidents have changed constitutions in order to stay in power, this is often with the complicit sanction of rich world governments who see their own strategic interests as best being protected by these rulers?

There are also problems with the perceptions of Africa that are created through such events. In the eyes of many British people, Africa is synonymous with poverty, violence and despair (for a great article on the ways in which anti-poverty campaigns can serve to associate entire regions with poverty, see Graham Harrison’s article, ‘The Africanization of poverty: A retrospective on ‘Make poverty history’ in African Affairs). Comic Relief is not alone in perpetuating these narratives, but it has played an important role. For many people, Africa is a place of dictatorships, corruption, poverty, and violence. Africa will be talked about in undifferentiated ways. And Africans are often presented as the subjects of our generosity and charity, rather than equal partners. How many African voices will we hear tonight, unmediated by a British celebrity? Precious few. And this absence, this silence, will continue to perpetrate ideas about lack of African agency, passivity and reliance on the action of others for their own betterment.

The cause is certainly good. There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of raising money for decent projects that help people to improve their lives and the resources and services to which they have access. The execution may not be my cup of tea, but then it’s not really designed for people whose day-to-day job is grappling with ideas and issues around development. There is nothing wrong with trying to convey challenges, issues and opportunities in simple ways. But there is something wrong with a simplistic message that seeks to write the politics of poverty out of the story; that seeks to avoid blaming us in the rich world for policies and decisions that harm the most vulnerable and marginalised elsewhere; and that yet again ensures the voices speaking out on the experience and consequences of poverty are those of privilege rather than those actually living the lives being described on their behalf, experiencing directly what it means to poor in a thoroughly globally unequal world.

Enjoy it, laugh at the funny bits, send some money. I may not be watching, but I’ll be making my donation. But don’t think money or empathy alone will help. Development is political, and any response  to development and poverty that isn’t political only ensures we will still be having these telethons in 30, 40 and 50 years time. And to think that audiences won’t respond to a more political understanding is to patronise those viewers, almost as much as many Africans (and those from other regions) will feel at the way they will have been represented.

* Some of these will not be funny, especially those that openly describe themselves as ‘wacky’.

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Brexit, aid and the value of money: is ‘aid’ what is given, or what is received?

Let me start of by admitting that thinking about the impact of a Trump president is a bit more interesting (and frightening) than the issue of foreign exchange and aid disbursements. But as so often, those seemingly boring things can actually be quite important for the lives and well-being of those who are most marginalised and have the least power.

The genesis for this post was back in late 2015, on a trip to the Republic of Georgia for a research project. Talking to some staff in the national office of an international NGO, I was told that the national office was having to substantially cut back on its programming due to a significant shortfall in funding from its Canadian funding partner. During 2015, the value of the Canadian dollar fell. When funds from that partner were exchanged into the Georgian Lari, the effect was to immediately wipe the equivalent of Can$400,000 from the value of the grant. The Canadian funding organisation was still giving the amount it had agreed, but from the perspective of the recipient, not only was significantly less actually being received, but programmes designed to support child and community development were being cancelled as a result.

Flash forward six months to the outcome of the Brexit referendum, and the sudden and dramatic collapse of sterling. What, I wondered, was the impact of Brexit on UK aid flows – not the headline figures as published by DFID and that appear in official aid statistics, but the more meaningful impact on what was received by its recipients, and on programming as a result?

I have been asking a few organisations how they cope with the issue of fluctuating exchange rates, and, in particular, whether they revisit their initial grants when shortfalls emerge as a result; and whether the unusually large fall after the 23rd June referendum had had an impact. The answer, universally, was no: the grant is the grant, and recipients must operate within those budgetary parameters, however they may fall.

One NGO explained that because currency fluctuation is to be expected over the course of a project, it undertook regular (re)forecasting exercises to try and calculate potential losses and gains in the grants it received, and ensure effective financial management. But whereas gains might lead to it being able to re-investment in the programme (subject to donor approval), losses would lead to scaling back in funded activities. As a recipient of large-donor funding, losses would be expected to be absorbed by the NGO, and it would not receive extra funds.

This same NGO followed similar principles when making grants to its own partner organisations: reforecasting at least twice a year, and an expecting country programmes to stay in budget. However, when exceptional losses were made, a business case could be made to access flexible funds to cover losses.

The Financial Controller of another British NGO outlined their strategy for coping with movement in forex rates. As well as the emphasis on effective forecasting and re-forcasting models common to all organisations, they identified a number of other coping strategies:

  1. Trying to build in flexibility in agreements with donors: either allowing for amendment of the grant budget when fluctuations are especially severe (as has been the post-June situation for sterling); or including a contingency budget for unforeseen costs, including forex movements.
  2. Seeking to ‘achieve a natural hedge’ by matching currency assets and liabilities on a currency basis, where possible.
  3. Making use of foreign exchange hedging contracts (i.e. locking into a particular rate over a period of time) if cost-effective.

In answer to a parliamentary question by Labour MP Paula Sherriff on the impact of the fall in the value of sterling since June 23rd 2016, Aid Minister Rory Stewart did not directly answer the question but stated in his written response that (a) fluctuations are not new, (b) payments are made in sterling so additional costs would be imposed upon DFID; and (c) recipients are ‘carefully selected’ to ensure they have sufficiently strong financial mechanisms to cope with such shocks.

I also sent in an FOI to DFID, asking specifically about the impact on recipients (not the impact on UK department finances), and whether there was a policy to make up shortfalls in disbursements when fluctuations were especially severe. The response acknowledged that when aid paid in sterling was converted to other currencies post-June 2016, its value would fall. However, managing risk of fluctuations was the responsibility of the recipient, and they assumed all the currency risk. DFID’s Strategic Risk Register is responsible for monitoring and forecasting the potential impact of strong fluctuations, but shortfall grants were not an option.

Although fluctuations are indeed a normal occurrence, and can be mitigated to an extent by forecasting and hedging, the 15% fall after the referendum was far in excess of the normal range of ups and downs, and will inevitably have had a major impact on programming. It is still far from clear to me that this impact has been acknowledged (from the perspective of programming, rather than impact on UK finances), never mind addressed.

This bring us to problems of how aid is seen and officially defined, and misleading assumptions about how much is actually spend on aid programming – you know, the stuff that the money is supposed to be used for. Official aid is defined from the perspective of the donor, not the recipient. So when you look at OECD data, what you will see is what donor governments gave to a particular country or organisation. That is not what was necessarily received. As an example, back in 2003 gross official aid to Africa (the headline figure for how much aid was made available) totalled $25.9 billion (of which $20.8b. was in grants, the rest in new loans). However, when we look at it from the perspective of the recipient, the total amount of aid received by African governments was $10.7b (and taking out support for debt repayments, the total falls again to $7.2b).

Whilst that ‘missing’ $10 billion or so was spent on ‘development’ activity, much of it was spent in donor countries and regions: on consultants, administration, services and equipment, grants to multi-lateral organisations and NGOs and so on. So, assuming it was spent wisely and had a positive impact (a big assumption, but let’s go with it), there should have been a positive impact on the African region. But nonetheless, if the headline figure for, say, DFID aid to Tanzania is one amount, and what arrives in banks in Dar es Salaam is another, there is an issue here.


When thinking about aid flows, should we really be looking from the perspective of the donor? We know that some European aid spending is being directed to manage the migration crisis within Europe – is that really international aid? Does the donor-focus make it easier for aid Ministers like Priti Patel to re-orientate aid spending to support UK post-Brexit trade-deals? A recipient-focused definition may lead to some surprising findings about what donors think is aid, and what the impact of that thinking has on the programmes they support. As the experience of the NGO in Georgia shows us, this is not just about semantics and dry definitions: the shift in perspective can uncover some very real consequences, not only for the local NGO, nor aid-recipient governments, but for the poor, marginalised and vulnerable.

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The Global Gag is back, and more women will die from unsafe abortions as a result

To absolutely no-one’s surprise (and as I wrote a few blog posts back), on his first working day in the presidential office Donald Trump signed an executive order reinstating the Mexico City Policy. Also known as the Global Gag, the policy restricts US funding for NGOs and other organisations who ‘perform or promote’ abortion services.

The Global Gag is, of course, a moral issue, embedded not just in debates around sexual and reproductive health, but also in women’s rights, equality and equity, participation in planning health services and packages, and questions of power (power of donors to control what goes on in other countries, power of a group of overwhelmingly middle-aged white men to determine the fate of overwhelmingly non-white, often young women). But engaging with the morality of the Mexico City Policy is to invite a response from proponents in which they simply assert the primacy of their own moral universe.

With that in mind, rather than engage with the politics, the morality, the rights issues at the heart of the Global Gag (critical though these are), let us focus instead on whether it works. If we accept that the premise of the Gag is to reduce the number of abortions taking place globally, does it achieve that aim? If it does, then its supporters may have a case that as a policy it does have the desired effect (however much I may disagree with that objective). Of course, if it doesn’t, and if it not only fails in that but makes the problem substantially worse, then any justification for the policy simply vanishes.

A 2011 study examining the impact of the Global Gag on abortion rates concluded:

“Our study found robust empirical patterns suggesting that the Mexico City Policy is associated with increases in abortion rates in sub-Saharan African countries.”

Although the authors point out that their data cannot draw definitive conclusions about causes, the association between ‘highly exposed’ countries (where the policy had its biggest impacts) and the rise in abortion rates is ‘strong’. Moreover, the timing of the growing gap in abortion rates between high and low exposure countries coincides with the reinstatement of the Global Gag in 2001.


[Source Eran Bendavid, Patrick Avila & Grant Miller (2011), ‘United States aid policy and induced abortion in sub-Saharan Africa’, Bulletin of the World Health Organisation 89, 873-880C. Available here]

Other studies, such as this one in Ghana, have similarly found an association between the imposition of the Global Gag, and rising abortion rates. In other words, the Mexico City Policy is associated not with a decline in abortion rates, but with an increase. It quite clearly fails.

If the Global Gag is not reducing (and is, as the data suggests, increasing) abortion rates, it is doing so especially for unsafe abortions. There are around 36 million abortions each year. Of these, 21.6 million are categorised as ‘unsafe’, contributing to the deaths of 47,000 women each year as a result of complications arising from unsafe abortions (and accounting for around 13% of all maternal deaths). In 2005, the Ethiopian government reformed its abortion laws in an effort to reduce the numbers of women dying from unsafe abortions (estimated at over 10,000 each year). Highly dependent on aid for its health sector (and the US being by far and away the largest provider of aid for health), the Global Gag reduced the scope for putting the reforms into practice, and undermined progress in reducing maternal deaths. Ethiopia’s experience is not uncommon.

Because many of the organisations involved in abortion services and advice are also key actors in wider sexual and reproductive health services, the Mexico City Policy has a wider impact on health:

  • A 2006 report on the impact of the Global Gag in Zambia found that the main NGO providing reproductive health clinics had lost 40% of its staff, been forced to scale back services and end community-based distribution of contraceptive supplies and wider health information.
  • Another report for Kenya showed, that reproductive health care providers were also closing clinics and scaling-back services. In most cases, these clinics were the only sources of health care for those communities. Community-outreach services, essential for HIV and AIDS programmes, were being cut. And child-health services were also being curtailed.
  • In Ghana, supplies of contraceptives increased when the Mexico City Policy was rescinded under President Clinton, and declined when it was reinstated by President George W Bush.
  • In Lesotho, famously, US shipments of condoms to the country were stopped as the organisation responsible for disbursement (the Lesotho Planned Parenthood Associated) lost its funding as the Global Gag was reintroduced by Bush (at a time when an estimated one-in-four women were living with HIV).

So not only is the Global Gag undermining sexual and reproductive health services, with all the implications for maternal and child mortality that this creates, and the negative impact on efforts to control HIV and AIDS; it is actually making the problem worse. Around four-fifths of all contraceptive supplies in sub-Saharan Africa are provided by external organisations of precisely the type targeted by the Mexico City Policy. By restricting access to contraception (through denial of funding to those organisations), more unwanted pregnancies occur, more women therefore are pushed into having unsafe abortions, and more women die. By restricting sexual and reproductive health work, efforts to control HIV and AIDS are critically undermined.

The evidence is quite clear: the Global Gag does not work. More than just not working, indeed, it has an opposite effect to that intended. So if the purpose of the proponents of the Mexico City Policy is to try and lower the number of abortions, then its architects ought to think again (here’s an idea, why not refuse funding to those organisations who promote abstinence-only campaigns, or refuse to provide contraceptives?).

But they won’t. And not just because in the new US knowledge-economy ‘facts’ can be challenged with ‘alternative facts’ made-up to order. The Global Gag isn’t really about the acceptable use of aid, or the effort to ensure US aid reflects particular ‘values’. It’s not even really about the number of abortions undertaken around the world. The Mexico City Policy is a totemic signal that reflects and speaks to domestic US politics. Its negative impact may occur outside the US, but it is intended to broadcast the character of the incoming administration within the US, to appeal to certain groups of voters, and to attract the support of certain lobby groups.

Targeting vital services of the global poor and marginalised for domestic political gain is bad enough, no matter which government does it. To do so with a policy that exacerbates maternal mortality, creates more unwanted pregnancies and leads to more unsafe abortions; that undermines HIV and AIDS prevention work; that worsens the health of entire communities; and that undermines any meaningful idea of human rights and gender equity, is simply disgraceful.

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