Baroness Sheehan: Liberal Democrat leadership made the 0.7% aid budget a legal reality, and we will continue to unequivocally and proudly defend it
The Liberal Democrat International Development Spokesperson defends the 0.7% aid budget, which came in during the Coalition government as a Private Members’ Bill and which has been criticised recently by both Conservative politicians and think tanks.
As the UK gears up for Brexit, Theresa May’s government has repeatedly told us we will continue to thrive as “Global Britain” after we leave the EU. But is “Global Britain’ anything other than an empty slogan?
Certainly, its death knell will toll if the ideas in this week’s paper by the TaxPayers’ Alliance, fronted by Priti Patel, gain traction in circles other than grassroots Conservative party members, who, by and large, loathe the international aid budget.
The timing of the release of this paper gives pause for thought – it essentially recycles the ideas published last month by the neo-con Henry Jackson thinktank and endorsed by Boris Johnson – there is, after all, fevered speculation about an imminent Tory leadership contest. It begs the question: is this attack to destabilise the aid budget just about fixing a problem within the Conservative party? After all, that’s what lay behind the referendum.
Between them the papers advocate for the UK to decide unilaterally what constitutes aid; for less spending through multilateral bodies such as the World Bank and the EU; for DFID to be folded into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO); and for the definition of aid to be reworked to include peacekeeping operations.
These ideas are woefully misplaced and illustrate why Ms Patel’s role as Secretary of State for DFID ended in ignominy. She failed to grasp then the role of her department and patently still remains in ignorance of the importance of the soft power and leadership it wields to benefit Britain’s standing on the international stage.
Breaches of protocol by the former DFID Secretary and her suggestion in an undocumented meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister that UK aid be used to fund Israeli soldiers performing humanitarian work in the Palestinian Occupied Territories led in part to her forced resignation in the most humiliating of circumstances - after having been very publicly summoned back from a trip to Africa.
Most peacekeeping expenditures by military personnel are excluded from the aid definition for a very good reason. This point is as relevant today as ever given the context of escalating number of attacks against aid workers with 139 killed, 102 wounded and 72 kidnapped in 2017 alone. To conflate soldiers with aid workers is dangerous; their roles must be kept separate and distinct – both to protect vulnerable aid workers in the field, and to safeguard the people aid is intended to assist.
In areas of conflict, some of the most traumatised are victims of gender-based sexual violence, who need specialised medical and psychological support. With the best will in the world, soldiers are not trained to provide the sensitive skills required. As a former DFID boss, she should know better.
On the question of whether DFID should be folded back into the FCO my response would be of course we want to see spending become even more effective and best value for money. But we want it done with the openness, transparency and financial efficiency that DFID demonstrates. Transparency International’s evaluation of government departments’ spending scores Dfid as good, and the FCO as poor. Where would you put your money?
Britain has signed up to a commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This is a moment in history when we need to significantly increase our financial commitment to eradicate extreme poverty and safeguard both people and our planet. Leveraging the UK’s financial expertise and finding new and innovative ways of raising money from the City and from the public will be necessary, but commensurate with that we need to harness the formidable expertise that resides within DFID in deploying that money where it will have greatest bang for buck. Dismantling DFID at this crucial point would be criminal and a set-back to efforts to meet the SDGs.
DFID’s successes in recent times are huge. UK aid, working together with our multilateral partners, has supported the immunisation of 37.4 million children, and saved 610,000 lives in a two-year period. From 2017-18, 42 million young women and children under 5 were reached through nutrition-related programmes, and in the last 12 months the UK aid has supported all the most pressing humanitarian crises of the time: funding the first ever cholera vaccinations in Yemen; supporting the humanitarian response in Syria’s eighth year of war; deploying an Emergency Medical Team to curb diphtheria among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and supporting the removal of IED’s in Iraq allowing a million people to return home, as indeed we should. These are great accomplishments.
It was Liberal Democrat leadership that made the 0.7% aid budget a legal reality, and we will continue to unequivocally and proudly defend its autonomy within an international rules-based system.
Baroness Sheehan is the Liberal Democrat International Development Spokesperson