I note over the weekend that the former head of the Army, General Lord Dannatt was reported to have joined the now long queue of those questioning why Britain manages to spend 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid whilst at the same time, the nation struggles to find the 2% of GDP that the Government is committed and more that is clearly needed to spend on defence.
My view of this matter is straightforward enough: I have no problem with anyone criticising how the Department for International Development (DfID) distributes funding provided of course, that such criticism it is justified. However, I take the view that providing any opportunity for HMG to link DfID with Defence in any way whatsoever would create unnecessary and dangerous confusion – the bottom line being that if they did link the two, defence would be the real loser.
So where does the concern emanate from? Speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival late last week, Lord Dannatt is reported to have said that that “it is a wonderful thing to be generous but spending £12 billion or £13 billion” [on aid] a figure which he suggests “the Department for International Development [DfID] struggles to spend wisely” is one that “I am not sure that’s right”.
The Dannatt view is apparently that the DfID budget should be reduced to 0.5% of GDP or maybe 0.6% and that the money supposedly ‘saved’ could be transferred to the defence budget. No doubt some will consider the suggestion makes sense but I for one do not.
Now, let me repeat that I am a firm believer that the UK should play its part in supporting those nations or peoples less able to support themselves, provided of course that this is done wisely, that it is fully transparent and accountable and that sufficient ‘policing’ is put in place to ensure the money is used for the intended purpose. DfID may not be perfect but it certainly does try and without proffering any evidence, my belief is that following much criticism in the past, those that run DfID have now got the message that they must be more cost effective and ensure that funds distributed go to legitimate programmes and that no money is wasted.
Thankfully, Foreign Aid is not the gift of one political party alone. The Conservative Party has long supported the need to provide Official Development Assistance (ODI) and so too have the Liberal Democrats. Pleasingly, so too has the Labour Party supported international aid spending although to be perfectly honest, at the time of writing this I am not sure what Labour’s current policy is. That said, I well remember the immediate former leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband being asked during the 2015 General Election campaign what [if anything] he most admired about then Tory Prime Minister, David Cameron – his answer being that ‘he had remained absolutely committed to funding foreign aid.
Even if the Dannatt suggestion had some merit I rather doubt that all the money saved from the Foreign Aid budget would find its way into defence. The Treasury would no doubt ensure that most of any money saved would end up be poured into the never ending drain of the NHS. Moreover, I view any notion that robbing ‘Peter’ to better fund ‘Paul’ being outside of properly designed strategy from which in my view is the only way that good policy can be born.
In any case, even if such an idea was to be announced tomorrow, no matter how much positive spin the Government would attempt to put behind the idea I venture to suggest that most right minded people who know only too well that governments rarely mean what they say will see the idea for what it would be, yet another con.
Of course, I completely understand why politicians and particularly a number of those that have recently left the House of Commons should consider that spending approximately £13.6 billion in order for Britain to remain in line with the pledge made at the 2005 G8 Gleneagles Summit of spending 0.7% of our GDP on foreign aid see the policy that has evolved as being is inexplicable for a country that is struggling with Brexit, a weakening economy, mounting risk, rising geo-political tensions, an ongoing public spending deficit not to mention an extraordinary mountain of debt. Yes, it does need a rethink and a complete tightening up, but in terms of funding, it doesn’t need to be linked with defence.
To put the whole thing into proportion, the 0.7% of GDP budget for foreign aid represents just two pence in every pound that is currently spent by government. As I have said, for a nation that portends to have the sixth or seventh largest economy in the world and that has been quite public about its desire to raise the nation’s stature on the world stage partly by showing a greater presence and one that I believe has both a responsibility and duty of care to provide Official Development Assistance (ODI) to those that require bilateral and other forms of assistance, I take the view that it is right that we spend as much as we do on ODI.
However, I do accept the argument that others need to do more and find it interesting and disappointing in equal measure that only Germany and the United Kingdom, the two major economies in Europe, are as far as I am aware the only nations that have so far met commitments made at the G-8 summit twelve years ago.
I readily accept I am treading on difficult ground here by being seen to support current official UK policy in regard of foreign aid and that many will disagree with my stance. However, my intention in writing on this today was never meant to be a piece covering the rights and wrongs of ODI investment, rather it was supposed to be about the notional suggestion by Lord Dannatt that we should be reducing the budget of the DfID in order to increase defence budget funding.
As I say, even if the idea was to ever meet with approval in No 10, the cynic in me would be looking at how they would fudge the situation in order to claim that they were both raising spending on defence whilst at the same time, not actually reducing spending on ODI.
My guess is that even if the DfID budget was to be reduced and funds ‘saved’ and that technically these funds might be passed to the defence budget, you can almost guarantee that certain DfID based responsibilities would also pass with them onto the defence budget as well. To repeat, moving any funding from one government department to another is hardly a strategy – it is most usually only done for political purposes and ends.
Out of interest, you may like to know that during the most recent General Election campaign I was ‘warned’ from particularly good sources that the Conservative Party was actually considering pushing up the defence budget to 3% of GDP, a figure that most of us would regard as being closer to the level that it needs to be.
But don’t get excited and you should be pleased that the idea never made it into the party manifesto. Why? Simply because I am told that the intention was also to merge the DfID budget into defence along with costs associated with GCHQ at Cheltenham plus some other associated costs that I was led to believe were, and still are, on Home office or Foreign Office budgets. As I say, we should be pleased that this did idea not materialise into strategy or policy if for no other reason than by the time all these additional costs had been incorporated onto the Defence Budget I guess that ‘actual’ or ‘real’ spending on defence would have fallen well below 2%.
I am sorry to disagree with such a worthy member of the House of Lords and while I can fully understand the reasoning behind his argument defence deserves far better than yet another government fudge, one that if the Dannatt idea was to be taken up I fear would leave it weaker rather than stronger.
Whilst writing, I note from the weekend press that former National Security Advisor, Lyall Grant has weighed into the debate over the potential Brexit impact on defence suggesting that the decision would have a “knock on impact on UK security” and “force the military to rethink ambitious spending projects”.
Well, maybe but the reality is that very few of the air power related projects and programmes to which he alludes in his Guardian interview can or should be considered ambitious. The opposite is more likely true, most new programmes confirmed in SDSR 2015 were after all only an attempt to put right the ridiculous and dangerous wrongs created by SDSR 2010.
Where I do agree with Mr. Grant is that the UK will need to be flexible over the European Court of Justice and his calls for continued cooperation [with the EU] on a series of high-profile security programmes after Brexit – these including information sharing, practical measures to assist UK law enforcement and intelligence agencies tackle serious organised crime, border security and terrorism – in other words the European Intelligence Agency, Europol for issues such as serious organised crime and cyber security, access to Schengen and Prum databases that store DNA, fingerprint vehicle and other information that helps to track down criminals together with traveller information and records access along with maintaining the current European arrest warrant status facility.
CHW (London – 16th October 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785