Labour seeks to stem cash aid for disasters

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High-profile disaster relief programmes are soaking up an increasing proportion of Britain's aid budget while preventive work is being cut, the latest official figures show.

Labour's overseas aid spokeswoman, Clare Short, has accused ministers of using "sticking plasters" to cover the fact that the United Kingdom is failing to provide the help needed to stop crises - such as the recent one in Zaire - happening. She plans radically to change Britain's approach. If her party wins power she will launch a new Department of International Development and call for a move away from the Live Aid approach to helping developing countries.

Other policies which would be announced in a Labour White Paper soon after the general election include pushing for United Nations sanctions to be aimed at rich people in oppressive regimes. Dictators such as General Sese Seko Mobutu of Zaire, who spends much of his time in Switzerland, could be refused travel visas. Foreign bank accounts could be frozen and flights to offending countries limited to essential aid.

Labour also wants to phase out the Aid and Trade provision under which money is sent to countries which can provide Britain with commercial contracts. Although the new figures show this has fallen over the past four years, cash is still channelled to comparatively rich countries.

Indonesia, which is to be the subject of a Public Accounts Committee inquiry into links between aid and arms sales from the UK, has the fourth biggest aid budget from Britain despite having a per capita gross domestic product higher than much of Eastern Europe. Its Aid and Trade has trebled over four years to almost pounds 29m.

Four years ago the United Kingdom used to spend the same amount on emergency aid to developing countries as it did on programme aid. But figures due out in January from the Overseas Development Administration (ODA) show that while programme aid has dropped by pounds 36m to pounds 82mn over that time, emergency aid has gone up by pounds 22m to pounds 140m.

"Aid is becoming a cover, a sticking plaster, a system that covers up a complete failure to have any strategy to deal with the growth of abject poverty in the world," Ms Short said. "There is no aid, no help, then we rush in with humanitarian aid. But how much better to have spent less on having some strategies."

The figures for the 1995-96 financial year show that Britain's aid budget has fallen to 0.28 per cent of gross national product, a little over half the 1979 figure. The UK is 15th in spending, after Japan, Germany and Finland. Top is Denmark, with 0.96 per cent of GNP.

A spokesman for the ODA said the past three years had been particularly demanding because of the conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda.

"We don't anticipate emergency aid becoming a bigger part of our plans at all. It is a problem, though, because long-term sustainable development isn't particularly photogenic ... For instance we do a lot of work in training economists, which isn't all that interesting but which probably matters a great deal to countries like Uganda," he said.