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Global aid spending is up, but some of it is staying at home

Refugees await to be taken to the main facility where they apply for resettlement to Canada. (©IOM/Muse Mohammed)

Global spending on development assistance reached its highest level, largely driven by the refugee crisis, according to a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

As some donor countries bask in the praise for their high spending and commitment to development assistance, others are questioning how the spending is measured, and whether the money is making it to those most in need.

The OECD’s 2015 data on official development assistance showed a total of $131.4 billion. Adjusting for inflation, it is a 6.6 percent increase over 2014 spending. Of that total, $12.1 billion was spent on ‘in-donor refugee costs,’ according to the One Campaign. That money never left the borders of the donor countries, but was included as development assistance in the OECD analysis. Subtracting that figure would mean that aid levels increased by 1.4 percent.

Regardless, spending is not keeping up with increasing global needs. The 2017 humanitarian appeal by the U.N. reached another record high. Both humanitarian and development assistance are falling behind of the world’s needs.

Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the U.K. were celebrated for meeting the United Nations target of spending 0.7 percent of gross national income on foreign aid. U.K.-based charities championed the achievement at a time when the target is under increased scrutiny and opposition.

“Aid is making a vital difference to millions of people around the world who are caught up in an unprecedented number of humanitarian crises,” Tom Viita, senior U.K. political adviser at Christian Aid, told Guardian. “The British public is showing enormous generosity in its donations to appeals and the UK stands among the leading countries making a safer world for everyone.”

According to a statement from the One Campaign, the organization welcomed new statistics that confirm aid has reached record levels in 2015, but criticized the declining proportion of aid received by the world’s poorest countries, with increasing amounts never leaving donor countries.

“Like so much in 2016, we end the year with a ‘mixed-bag’ of news.  Aid has increased to its highest level, but we are not seeing a proportionate increase in aid to the least developed countries,” Sara Harcourt, policy director of development finance at ONE, said in a statement. “Many countries are redirecting their aid – which is meant to fight poverty – towards covering the costs of refugees they are hosting. It’s absolutely right that we protect people fleeing war and insecurity, but we also must support the world’s poorest people.”

If that sounds familiar it is because ONE offered a similar criticism last year. The advocacy group argued that the least-developed countries are the places that need international assistance the most. Most of the world’s poor will live in these countries within 15 years. If the world is serious about achieving the goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030, assistance must target where poverty is most prevalent, One contended.

Overall, aid to the least-developed countries increased modestly from 2014 to 2015, but the proportion of total official development assistance fell by 1.6 percentage points. That is almost entirely due to the prioritization of spending on refugees.

“Donor countries must prioritize efforts to tackle extreme poverty and preventable disease, ensuring their focus is squarely on those with the least ability to lift themselves out of poverty. Doing so will bolster the fight against extreme poverty and efforts to overcome the challenges we’re faced with in today’s world,” said Harcourt.

She commended the U.K.’s commitment to development spending in an interview with Humanosphere last year. And emphasized the fact that aid should help countries to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Aid advocates have been careful to stress the importance of both funding the response to the refugee crisis and development assistance. They want governments to step up and do more for both, not simply shuffle around money already allocated.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]