UK aid minister promises to keep 0.7% target post-Brexit

Priti Patel [DfID/Flickr]

The UK’s new aid minister has promised to keep the country’s aid target of 0.7% of GDP, despite herself once campaigning for the Department for International Development (DfID) to be shut down.

Priti Patel made the comments in an interview in India, where she is seeking to boost UK-India bilateral trade deals.

Patel was made Secretary of State for International Development by new Prime Minister Theresa May in the wake of David Cameron’s resignation, following the loss of the referendum to stay in the EU.

The appointment made waves, because Patel had both campaigned for the Leave side, and had previously championed closing DfID entirely.

She further created unease in the NGO and aid sector when ten days ago she appointed the head of media relations for Vote Leave as her special advisor.

Robert Oxley had previously called for the 0.7% of GDP being spent on international development to be scrapped, calling it an “arbitrary target.”

Oxley made those remarks when previously running the Taxpayers’ Alliance, which campaigns for a small state and lower government expenditure.

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May, however, had signalled she wished to keep the 0.7% target, which Cameron – on leaving Downing Street – had called one of his proudest achievements.

The 0.7% target was originally set in the 1970s, and despite all EU member states being theoretically committed to meeting it, so far only the UK, Denmark, Sweden and Luxembourg actually achieve that aim.

Speaking to the First Post newspaper in India, Patel recommitted to the 0.7% target, although without renouncing her previous opposition to DfID.

She told the paper: “We [the government] have a very clear remit when it comes to international development and aid.

“Let’s not forget that a year ago, my government was elected with a majority on a manifesto that had some very clear commitments to aid, such as the spending of 0.7% of national income on foreign aid, such as our commitments for women and girls, and dealing with big diseases like malaria, tuberculosis.

“These are manifesto commitments and we will obviously continue to deliver on these.”

Patel, in her previous role as an employment minister under Cameron, had told the Daily Telegraph in 2013 that DiFD should be scrapped.

She said then: “A long-term strategic assessment is required, including the consideration to replace DfID with a department for international trade and development in order to enable the UK to focus on enhancing trade with the developing world and seek out new investment opportunities in the global race.” she said.

Her new special advisor – essentially a spin doctor – had said in 2014 that the 0.7% target was “not something to celebrate.”

Speaking then, Oxley said, “hitting an arbitrary spending target is not something to celebrate, quite the opposite.

DfID, he added, “should focus on using the billions already handed to it to genuinely help the world’s poorest rather than chase this arbitrary target.”

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Oxley had also called for an end to all aid programmes for India, where his new boss was interviewed.

When, in 2012, it was announced UK aid to India would be phased out by 2015, he said it should cease sooner.

And in 2013 Oxley told The Sun newspaper that “an unaccountable, bureaucratic and wasteful industry has grown up around spending on taxpayers’ money on international aid.”

Some of those sentiments on trade rather than aid seemed to be echoed in Patel’s comments  in India, where she said, “My department [DfID] has a role to play in economic development, development in poor countries, poor economies and of course, commerce and trade becomes part of that.

Patel, who is of Indian-origin herself, added, “My point is that we have to leverage our international footprints to work to broaden our dialogue to create economic dialogues, bilateral dialogues on trade and prosperity in particular.”

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The EU remains the biggest donor of humanitarian and development aid assistance in the world. But budgetary constraints faced by its member states, the refugee crisis and the deterioration of the international security context have put Europe’s international solidarity to the test.

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