A welcome consensus on aid - but where is our ambition?

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A remarkable and unusually positive development will take place tomorrow. On this day, the leaders of all three major parties will address special events on the subject of international development. That all are devoting time from their hectic campaign schedule to a topic that customarily languishes low in electoral priorities is a welcome sign of the times.

A remarkable and unusually positive development will take place tomorrow. On this day, the leaders of all three major parties will address special events on the subject of international development. That all are devoting time from their hectic campaign schedule to a topic that customarily languishes low in electoral priorities is a welcome sign of the times.

Even two decades ago, world poverty and development would have attracted scant attention during an election. This time around, domestic issues are still uppermost, and the Iraq war and its aftermath rightly dominate discussion of foreign affairs. Aid and international development, however, now constitute an integral part of every political programme. They are essential for any party that wants to be taken seriously.

This change owes much to public pressure and to the generation that grew up with the memory of Live Aid. That televised event brought the reality of poverty in Africa home to a much wider audience in the rich, first world. It owes much, too, to the ease of international travel and, in Britain, to the flourishing practice of student "gap years", entailing travel and voluntary work overseas. There is now a new appreciation of international development: what works, what does not, the different requirements of different regions and the sums of money that are needed.

Despite this growth in awareness, however, international development has hardly figured in this campaign up to now. One reason may be the degree of unanimity between the parties about what they would do if elected. All are pledged to increase the portion of national income spent on international aid. The differences are in the strength and precision of the commitments, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats setting a timetable for raising spending to the 0.7 per cent of GDP set as an objective by the UN, while the Tories have simply promised to match Labour's proposed spending pound for pound.

All the parties are agreed also on the benefits of free trade and the iniquities of the tariff barriers that make it so difficult for the poor to use trade to pay their way. All want further reform of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy to encourage food production in the poorer countries. And all advocate full cancellation of debt for the poorest countries, including debt owed to multilateral lenders. All want measures taken to foster good governance and discourage corruption. The one serious black mark against the Tories is that they are alone in not voicing support for a treaty to regulate the international arms trade.

The risk in all this relative unanimity is that, without significant points of contention to spur debate, these modest commitments will be taken as read and the subject pushed back down the political agenda. And the commitments are modest. There is room for much greater ambition so far as Britain's aid and development programme is concerned. It defies belief that a country as rich as ours cannot, even under a Labour government, undertake to meet the spending target of 0.7 per cent of GDP before 2013.

Other commitments, such as debt relief, tariff regimes and an arms treaty, are more problematic, for they do not depend on us alone. The determination of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to make Africa a priority of Britain's presidencies of the EU and the G8 should keep international development high on the national agenda. The challenge will be to convince others, especially the United States, that this is an international imperative they should share.

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