Celebrate aid times?

Snapshot from House of Lords when International Development (ODA) Bill was passed.

Earlier this month, Lord Purvis of Tweed passed the International Development (ODA) Bill through the House of Lords, “we will be making a worthwhile contribution” he declared to the nepotistic throng. Very soon, it will be every future government’s obligation to spend at least 0.7% of its gross national income on foreign aid.

Campaigners raised banners outside Parliament expressing relief and appreciation. Hundreds tweeted homage to the “historic moment”; Stephen Doughty, MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, thumbed, “Brilliant that 0.7% aid bill has finally passed Lords: have campaigned for nearly 15 years on this!”

Fifteen years is a long time, but others have waited longer. It has taken the UK nearly forty years to meet the UN’s challenge when it called on economically advanced countries to commit themselves to a 0.7% aid target. In 2013 we spent £11.5 billion, surpassing the recommendation by .02%, making us the second-largest donor in volume terms, beaten only by the United States.

Responding to the House of Lords decision, Flora Alexander, Head of Government Relations for Save the Children, rejoiced saying, ‘As we approach the end of this parliament, we have seen politicians put aside their differences to agree what kind of country they want to build in the next. And I for one want to say thank you.’

Without a doubt, the Bill is important and will certainly make a difference. For one, the government isn’t simply throwing money at a problem: Official Development Assistance (ODA) is a fusion of concessional loans and grants intended for the support of development work and humanitarian aid in low-income countries. By “concessional” it means that, at most, 85% will be wanted back at some point, albeit with lower interest rates and more time to pay up.

But there are worries over where the money ends up. Although a recent report by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) has ruled out any ominous spending by non-DFID organisations disseminating ODA, questions still hang over how the money affects recipient states and whether it truly reaches those who need it.

A state known for its war zones and religious extremism rather than its rich history and breath-taking vistas, Afghanistan had more than a third of its population living in poverty with around two-thirds unable to read or write in 2011.

In 2012, Afghanistan received the most ODA of any other country. The UK government pledged $387 million, funding 126 projects in sectors that included education and security.

But a 2012 DFID report gave a depressing insight into the story of foreign aid in Afghanistan: programmes had been ‘limited and fragile’ with the Afghan government only seeing small amounts of aid (the rest being untraceable); very little was reaching rural areas; those considered most in need were missed as corruption combined with local governments’ bad management meant money landed in the wrong hands; and squabbling between donors ‘led to poorly coordinated or ill-advised aid projects.’

BBC Afghanistan Correspondent David Loyn said aid had “corrupted the elite of the country, corrupted people in the countryside and made it far harder for any of the effective international actors, such as DFID, to operate well within the country.”

It was armed with similar criticisms that Dambisa Moyo put together her book, Dead Aid, in which she argued the need for “tough-love” – withdrawing all foreign aid in one go – slicing the umbilical cord that connected a “parastate” to its resentful host.

But as Alexander writes later in her article, the passing of this Bill lets us move on from wondering whether we should be spending aid (a debate not completely won) to thinking about “how we can ensure our investments are effective and lead to transformative, sustainable change for people in the poorest countries.”

This Bill will only be a supported by the public if it can assure us that our money will, for certain, better the lives of the individuals we see (and the billions we don’t) suffering on our Smart TVs between episodes of The Chase. It will be a powerful statement when after seeing a starving child fade to black, we are presented with tangible evidence of the difference made with UK ODA.