A FUTURE Conservative government could reduce effective international aid by the British government, a senior minister warned at the weekend.
Speaking at the Greenbelt festival during a talk entitled Development in a Downturn, Douglas Alexander suggested that Conservative Party commitments to international aid and development amounted to little more than attempts to ‘detoxify their brand’ by appearing to be willing to spend as much as the current government.
Citing a recent poll on the Conservative Home website, Mr Alexander, the international development secretary, pointed out that 96 per cent of endorsed Conservative candidates said that protecting the aid budget should not be a priority.
The poll also outlined how, under a Conservative government, DfID (The Department for International Development) might be ‘folded back’ into the Foreign Office, with much of its aid budget diverted elsewhere.
Mr Alexander said of the survey of endorsed Conservative candidates, ‘If these poll numbers were to be translated into MPs in parliament, those people would be deciding whether the aid budget is protected or not.
‘And if you’ve got a backbench who think that aid is somehow irrelevant or at best peripheral to your political project then personally I think that the aid budget will be more vulnerable.’
Under Mr Alexander’s stewardship the UK has been acknowledged as the first G8 country to be on course to reach the UN target of spending 0.7 per cent of national income on overseas assistance by 2013.
In 2008 its financial help to the world’s poorest rose by almost a quarter to £6.2bn, and 0.43 per cent of UK national income.
Mr Alexander welcomed Tory leader David Cameron’s assertion that a future Tory government would ring-fence the aid budget, but expressed doubt as to whether international development would be high on a Conservative government’s agenda. ‘Consistently when Labour has been in power we have pushed up the proportion of aid that we’ve spent, and consistently, when our main opposition party has been in power, that proportion has come down.’
The shadow international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, rejected Mr Alexander’s claims, stating that the Conservative Party believes that eliminating world poverty is ‘one of the great moral callings of our time’, and ‘firmly in Britain’s national interest’.
He told The Baptist Times, ‘That’s why we’ve repeatedly affirmed our commitment to achieving, by 2013, the UN target of spending 0.7 per cent of national income on aid, and to keeping DFID as an independent department.
‘We’ll also take tough steps to ensure value for money in aid, for example by setting up an independent aid watchdog to scrutinise spending and ensure all our aid achieves the most good possible.’
Mr Alexander also told the Greenbelt audience that DfID would, by the end of the year, be launching an initiative that would allow smaller UK charities (including faith-based NGOs), to access Government funding for innovative overseas development projects.
He said that DfID had been ‘very good at providing money to the Christian Aids, the Tearfunds, the Oxfams of this world’, but that the new the innovation fund (to be ‘up and running’ by the end of the year) would be the answer for the large number of people who approach the Department with innovative projects and funding needs of around just £10,000.
And the secretary of state received a spontaneous ovation from the Greenbelt audience when he said, ‘Our task – and I would ask your help in this – is to make sure that people come to see the aid budget in rather the same way that many people now see the NHS, as kind of off-limits for any politician, of any hue, to touch.’