Politics: Short promises to double overseas aid

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The Independent Online
The Government will increase the share of resources going into the overseas aid budget for the first time since 1979, Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, told The Independent. The White Paper on development published today restates the Government's intention to aim for a 0.7 per cent of GDP target, which would more than double Britain's aid spending.

Ms Short said that after discussions with the Chancellor she expected an increase in her department's budget starting in 1999. "We are redirecting resources very significantly for next year." The following year she expected to be able to increase spending in line with the strategy set out in the new White Paper, the first on international development for more than 20 years.

"That is the logic of the Government's commitments, to stay within existing totals for two years and then to increase our spend as we go through to the election."

This would take the official British aid budget from pounds 2.3bn to more than pounds 5bn in today's money. "It's a very small amount of money in return for which Britain would get an enormous moral authority on the world stage. It's cheap at the price."

The White Paper links receipt of British aid to the commitment to certain policies by the recipient countries. Preferred "partners" will get increased longer-term aid. While the Government will not necessarily cut aid to other poor countries, it will be directed through charities and non-governmental organisations rather than through official government channels. Ms Short said: "There are rotten governments that you can not work with," giving the example of Nigeria.

But governments that make a priority of UN development targets such as universal primary education and basic healthcare will be rewarded. "We are saying: `If you are serious about these targets, we want to work with you'."

This new approach was possible thanks to the end of the Cold War, which meant aid was directed mainly for geopolitical purposes, Ms Short said. In addition, the International Monetary Fund had shed the excesses of monetarism, such as making governments in desperately poor countries charge for basic healthcare. "They would never have dared to do that in Britain and they were doing it in the poorest countries in the world."

However, the pragmatism of the White Paper might well disappoint some idealists in the development business. It recognises the reality of the global capital market and emphasises the need for developing countries to work within international rules on investment and trade.

Ms Short said: "Being against globalisation is like being against the Industrial Revolution. Some people were - William Blake was - and it was an honourable thing to be. But history suggests you might be wasting some of your energy."

She hinted that she would have preferred to see minimum standards on working conditions and the environment written into trade rules, saying she sees a danger of labour standards being driven down by international competition. But today's document opts for realism, saying merely that the Government will "work for" adherence to minimum standards in other arenas.

Meanwhile, the White Paper will confirm the Government's long-trailed plan to abolish the aid and trade programme linking aid to business deals for British companies, releasing more than pounds 70m for other priorities as the scheme is phased out.

It was discredited after being used in arms deals and the illegal financing of Malaysia's Pergau dam. According to Ms Short, the Government is not looking for "short-term kickbacks" to British business.

Today's statement will also emphasise the need for companies to maintain high ethical standards in doing business in the developing world, which the department will encourage through supporting voluntary codes of conduct. It has already announced that it is working on an ethical code with the big supermarket chains.