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Thursday, 17 May, 2001, 14:48 GMT
International development

British people are interested in the fate of the world's poor, according to surveys, and in 1997 a new Whitehall department was established to spearhead UK aid efforts.


Following the 1997 general election, the Labour government created a new Cabinet-level Department for International Development (DFID), headed by Clare Short.

Ms Short's Conservative predecessor at the Overseas Development Administration, Lynda Chalker, had been praised for her handling of the brief but aid agencies said she had been fighting a losing battle.

Bilateral aid: Top recipients (2000)
106m: India
87m: Ex-Yugoslavia
81m: Uganda
66m: Bangladesh
64m: Tanzania
48m: Ghana
47m: Malawi
44m: Mozambique
30m: Sierra Leone
30m: South Africa
Source: DFID
Agencies said the aid policy had become muddled when the Conservative administration linked aid to political and commercial considerations - the most controversial being the 1994 Pergau Dam affair.

Labour said it would sever the link between trade and aid and focus on supporting poverty reduction programmes.

One in five people - 1.2 billion - live on less than $1 a day, according to DFID.

Since the 1980s the poorest fifth of the world's population has seen its share of global income fall to less than 2%.

The richest fifth have seen their share rise to 85%.

The World Bank estimates that 35,000 children die each day from readily preventable diseases.

The United Nations' proposed target for international aid spending is 0.7% of GNP.

In 1979 aid spending stood at around 0.51% of Gross National Product. In 1997 it was 0.27%.

This decline in the proportion of spending occurred around the western world.

The 2000 global aid budget of $60bn represented 0.25% of major donors' GNP - the lowest level since the Second World War.


But is the British public interested? On the face of one survey carried out by DFID, the answer is yes.

The British donate about 500m every year to international aid, and some of the world's leading international development charities - such as Oxfam - were founded in the UK.

The July 2000 DFID survey found that more than two-thirds of those questioned were concerned about poverty in developing nations and believed that it affected the UK's national interests.

Just short of 70% of those asked said that poverty was a "moral issue".

DFID said that it would focus on poverty reduction measures such as conflict resolution, primary education programmes and, more recently, advocating change to international trade rules.

In her first speech in office, Clare Short said DFID had been "given the weight to act as an effective advocate" for development.


Labour pledged to halt the decline in aid spending in 1997.

But in 1999 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said that spending as a proportion of GNP had fallen to 0.23%.

The government denied this, saying that the OECD had not taken into account payments brought forward because of the Kosovo crisis.

The department's spending is set to grow by 6.2% a year over three years after a funding increase in the 2000 Comprehensive Spending Review, taking its budget from $2.4bn in 1999/2000 to $3.56 by 2003-04.

The government predicts that spending will reach 0.33% of GNP by 2003-04.


DFID's first policies emerged in its 1997 White Paper ambitiously titled "Eliminating World Poverty".

It committed the government to internationally agreed targets for the year 2015:

  • Halving the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015
  • Introducing universal primary education in all countries
  • Demonstrating progress towards gender equality
  • Cutting infant and under-fives mortality rates by two-thirds
  • Reducing maternal mortality by three-quarters
  • Establishing universal family planning healthcare

    The department said that the UK could not hit these targets on its own.

    But in practical terms, they have led to more aid being targeted on the poorest nations.

    Neither the UK nor any other individual donor country can achieve these targets alone ... but if by working together we can increase the effectiveness of the international community, our assessment is that they are achievable

    Clare Short

    Other moves include funding for conflict resolution in Africa and reform of the Commonwealth Development Commission (turned into a Plc wholly owned by the government) to allow it to raise funds for investment in developing countries.

    The key to meeting the targets, says DFID, is a combination of good governance and economic policy in the recipient nations coupled with properly targeted development programmes in health, education and other areas.

    However, research suggests that bilateral programmes - where the UK for example funds a single programme - are far less effective than a multilateral pooling of funding and expertise.

    While this suggests that multilateral funding is more effective, the European Commission has been criticised for its handling of development.

    Two years after Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1998 not a single cent of a promised 210m euros in EU aid had been handed out.

    The EU's system is being reformed while the Conservatives have called for aid to be left to individual member states.

    But the most important factor in international development remains debt.


    In the UK, Chancellor Gordon Brown acted unilaterally in December 2000 and pledged to write-off an estimated $2.4bn owed to the UK by 41 of the poorest countries.

    However, these nations and others still owe vast sums to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

    Jubilee 2000, the international campaign group, succeeded in persuading the world's leaders to cancel $100bn - but campaigners say this means that repayments will be cut only by a third.

    Its successor organisation, Drop the Debt, is specifically targeting Gordon Brown in the hope that a second Labour government would be prepared to pile pressure on the international institutions to do more.


    DFID unveiled the next stage of its project to Whitehall thinking with its Globalisation White Paper. The Bill became a casualty of the general election after failing to complete all its parliamentary hurdles before the Prime Minister went to the country.

    Lifting people out of poverty is the biggest moral challenge facing us - it is a matter of political will

    Clare Short
    Labour has pledged to look for reforms to the global trading system to reduce barriers to entry for poorer nations.

    For instance, there have been complaints that the Common Agricultural Policy (see separate brief) results in the dumping of the European Union's excess food cheaply on foreign markets - while maintaining a tariff regime making imports more expensive.

    Labour does not, however, support calls for the World Bank and IMF to be abolished, arguing (like other parties) that they can be reformed and strengthened.

    The non-government development community welcomed the White Paper but warns that good intentions are not enough: they have to be backed up by institutional change where it matters. What is unclear is whether the legislation will return if Labour is re-elected - and in what form.


    While the department has been generally well received among the aid community, it has had its share of controversies.

    While people were dying in trees [during the Mozambique floods], this government was wrangling over the price tag for four helicopters

    Gary Streeter, Conservative spokesman on development
    The National Audit Office praised its handling of the humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo, saying that the department worked quickly with a wide range of organisations to deliver aid on the ground in a highly volatile situation.

    Clare Short's department became embroiled in a row over how it handled the Montserrat volcano eruption in 1997 after the secretary of state said that the inhabitants of the British overseas territory would be "wanting golden elephants next".

    Last year, the Conservatives attacked the handling of the UK's contribution to the Mozambique floods relief effort after Ms Short revealed that she had had to look elsewhere for helicopters because the Ministry of Defence's charges were too high.

    Gary Streeter, the opposition spokesman on development, said: "While people were dying in trees, this government was wrangling over the price tag for four helicopters."

    This was something Ms Short denied.

    The UK's backing of British business involvement in Turkey's Ilusu Dam project also raised eyebrows.

    If it goes ahead, the hydro-electric project will displace thousands of Kurdish people.

    The cross-party International Development Committee has called for similar projects to be referred to DFID for a human rights assessment.

    But it warned that the department must not become the "rent-a-conscience for the rest of Whitehall".


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