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U.K. MP concerned about militarization of foreign aid

DfID worker checking supplies on a RAF C17 bound for the Philippines (Crown Copyright/ Sgt Ralph Merry ABIPP RAF/flickr)

The U.K. government is being criticized for its role in advocating for a change the re-defines official development assistance to include spending on peace and security. There are concerns that changes adopted by the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development will pave the way for the militarization of aid at the expense of humanitarian assistance.

Prime Minister David Cameron was lauded when he led the passage of a bill pinning U.K. foreign aid spending to 0.7 percent of gross national income. Champions of the target celebrated as the country joined Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway and the U.A.E., as the only other countries to meet the commitment.

Changing the definition of what counts as foreign aid potentially allows the government to meet the target by spending the money on the military. Diane Abbott, the shadow international development secretary, is concerned by the new developments.

U.K. Minister of Parliament Diane Abbott.

U.K. Member of Parliament Diane Abbott.

“I believe in the 0.7 percent target,” said Member of Parliament Abbott, in an interview with Humanosphere. “What this exposes is the government’s cynicism of using the good will they have gained by signing up to it to cut away at the budget itself. I am not de facto against spending aid on security projects or on focusing on fragile states, what I am against is the amount of money being allocated, the motivations and the lack of transparency.”

Abbott argues that the point of development assistance is to reduce poverty and improve people’s lives. Making investments that are meant to support U.K. security interests do not necessarily overlap with the goal of alleviating poverty.

Supporters of the changed definition say that security investments in developing countries supports a country’s ability to improve. In Nigeria, for example, Boko Haram’s attacks in the northeast have harmed access to basic services for people in the region. Putting an end to the insurgent Islamist group would help people return to normalcy and open up the opportunity for other forms of development assistance.

The new U.K. budget saw more aid money moving away from the Department for International Development (DfID) and to other areas, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Defence. The overall percentage of aid money spent by DfID fell from 86 percent to 70 percent, in the plan released late last year. The ability to make such changes exposes the shortcomings of the 0.7 percent target, said Owen Barder, senior fellow with the think tank the Center for Global Development, in a December blog post.

“Aid advocates should be careful what they wish for,” he wrote. “If you advocate for an input target like 0.7 percent, you don’t have have a leg to stand on when the government hits the target but uses the money for whatever it can get away with within the rules.”

Abbott does not take a wholesale opposition to the way that the government is using foreign aid money. What she is most concerned with are the potential problems that might come with the recent changes.  She praised the work of DfID, but worries that the “brilliant people” working in the department cannot do their jobs if money is taken away.

“I am not against spending aid in our own financial and security interests as long as it is also in the financial and security interest of the nation in which we are spending that aid,” said Abbott. “The government labors under the comfortable delusion that our interests are always shared with those of the developing world. This is patently untrue.”


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]