Wall of silence from development NGOs on Brexit threat

Aid spending by EU member states increased in 2018, bucking a global trend. [MattTempest/Flickr]

EXCLUSIVE / Actors, scientists and now even historians have put their names forward to argue for Britain to stay in the EU. But with less than four weeks to go to the UK referendum, there has been a resounding wall of silence from key development NGOs on the dangers – or even opportunities – posed by a Brexit.

The EU is world’s largest single donor of Official Development Aid (ODA), and within the EU, the UK one of the few member states (and the only major economy) to hit the target of spending 0.7% of national GDI (Gross National Income) on  foreign aid.

Combined with the fact that many of the world’s best-known development charities were originally founded in the UK (and still have large operations there) an investigation by euractiv.com has found a surprisingly large number of NGOs mute on what the consequences of an ‘out’ vote on June 23 would be.

Oxfam – founded in Oxford and perhaps the NGO which has become perhaps the most synonymous with overseas aid in the public’s mind – said “We don’t take a position on political issues.”

A spokeswoman added that Brexit was “too sensitive” a topic to broach.

This is despite the fact that the UK is, globally, the second biggest benefactor of aid in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) donor nations.

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The leaders of the G7 have committed to increasing global aid in the face of the biggest migration crisis since the Second World War. Currently the United Kingdom is the only member of the group to fulfil its aid commitments. EURACTIV France reports.

The UK’s aid budget – largely spent through the Department for International Development (DfID), a creation of the Labour government under Tony Blair – came in at £11.7bn (€.15.3bn) for 2014.  The figures for 2015 are expected to be published in the next few months – after the 23 June plebiscite.

Some 42% of that is spend through multilateral organisations, primarily the EU. Within the 28-member bloc, the two primary responsible departments are DG ECHO (Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection) and DG DEVCO (Development and Cooperation.)

Only three other member states – Sweden, Luxembourg and Denmark – met the 0.7% GNI target, which was mandated by the United Nations,  and promised by the EU at the G8 summit at Gleneagles in 2005.

In fact, the UK has gone further still, enshrining the target in British domestic law last year, meaning that to abandon the 0.7% figure would mean not just a change in government policy, or a change in government at a general election, but repealing the law itself.

Writing for EURACTIV earlier this month, chair of the European Parliament Development Committee, MEP Linda McAvan, spelt out the advantages for UK aid being partly-channelled through the EU, and the UK’s own leadership role within the development community.

What would 'Brexit' mean for Development?

On June 23rd Britain will go to the polls to make a momentous decision: whether to remain in or leave the EU, writes Linda McAvan MEP.

Yet – perhaps fearful of the increasingly bitter and divided nature of the debate on the UK mainland – most, or nearly all, NGOs are refusing to spell out what a Brexit could mean for both the UK and the EU, in terms of overseas aid.

A spokeswoman for Save the Children, another NGO with UK roots, said the NGO had “no official position” on the Brexit question.

Similarly, ActionAid – another NGO originally founded in the UK – would say only that “Unfortunately, at this moment ActionAid UK is not commenting on the issue of Brexit.”

ONE, the advocacy group co-founded by U2 to fight extreme poverty, had a similar message, echoed that refusal to get involved, saying: “We decided not to comment on Brexit/Development issues for the time being.”

Even War on Want, traditionally the most radical and leftist of the big-name NGOs, told EURACTIV they were “officially neutral” on the issue – although pointing to director John Hillary’s statement summing up the pros and cons of a Brexit, and stating, “War on Want will not be running a campaign for the UK to leave or to remain in the EU. We hold to the principle of internationalism that unites social movements across borders, and we remain actively committed to the task of building a People’s Europe from below, whatever the institutions imposed from above.”

International NGOs with no direct roots in the UK, and so seemingly with less to lose in terms of potentially alienating voters and possible donors, were loath to comment. The right-wing Mail on Sunday newspaper has been running a campaign against UK overseas aid, pointing to corruption and waste.

Who cares?

CARE, the Swiss-based development NGO, told EURACTIV “we have no official position”, whilst World Vision, the evangelical Christian development charity founded in the US and based in California, replied that “we are not commenting.”

In fact, the only NGO EURACTIV found willing to stick its head above the parapet was Global Justice Now, calling for a ‘remain’ vote, after polling its 10,000 members and 70,000 supporters in February and finding 80% support.

A spokeswoman added, “This is not an endorsement of the status quo. It is clear to us that the EU is broken”, but that “solutions are at the European level.”

All Whitehall departments, including DfID, are now under the official ‘purdah’ period in the four-week run-up to the plebiscite, meaning civil servants are not allowed to say anything which may influence the vote one way or another.

However, a DfiD official would say that “The UK is the only one of the G7 nations to have both met its 0.7% commitment and to have enshrined it in law. We are leading the way, and would encourage other countries to do the same.”

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Projects in Senegal helping disabled schoolchildren and rescuing street kids have appealed for a continuation of their EU funding, as Brussels officials fly in for a summit in the capital, Dakar, with leaders of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) nations on Thursday (28 April).

Off the record, the NGOs are more candid. “Of course, it would definitely be a bad thing,” said one, preferring to remain anonymous.

A Brussels-based senior figure at one of the world’s biggest NGO went much further, again on condition of not being attributed.

“It would be a disaster. First and foremost, because the UK is one of the biggest contributors to the EU ODA, so that would be a big loss to the budget.

“Secondly, it would fragment development coordination efforts. Too many bilateral development deals simply give you less bang for your buck.

“Thirdly, what the UK does very effectively [inside the EU] is amplify its influence. DfiD’s people are some of the most impressive around the table.

“And finally, the EU’s ‘voice’ on development is very much shaped by the UK. It is a thought-leader in both Development and Humanitarian Aid. It’s not just money, but also policy. HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] briefings are read very carefully.

“There is a lot of trust from recipients, and DfiD gives, without being seen as ‘post-imperial’, or ‘patronising.’ And – ultimately – if the UK left, it would probably still end up paying into development, like Norway and Switzeland do, just without any say in policy.”

Cracks appear in EU-ACP unity at Cotonou meeting in Dakar

Dissent was heard at the high-level meeting in Dakar last week of the EU and the 79-member states of the African, Caribbean and Pacific group.

At a recent ministerial meeting of the EU and African, Caribbean and Pacific nations in Dakar, Senegal – attended by EURACTIV – there was little talk of a possible Brexit, but much concern at the state of EU-ACP relations and a highly-contentious successor to the Cotonou Agreement on aid and trade.

One African figure – again, wishing to speak unattributed – pointed to the role the UK played as a critic of the widely-hated EU Common Agricultural Policy, seen as favouring French farmers in particular, over African agricultural produce, as well as pondering whether the absence of the UK would – eventually – favour the francophone African nations over those formerly in the British Empire.

And a Brexit is unlikely to see an ‘independent’ UK go much further in terms of ODA. UKIP – and some member of the Conservative party right-wing, have railed at the 0.7% commitment, and repeatedly made clear they regard the foreign aid budget as a wasteful distraction.

Indeed, UKIP – who have only one MP at Westminster but 22 MEPs in Brussels – stood at the 2015 general election on a platform of cutting overseas aid by two-thirds and abolishing the Department for International Development altogether.

  • 23 June 2016: UK referendum on remaining or leaving the EU.
  • July-December 2017: UK rotating presidency of the European Council.
  • June 2018: Theoretical 2-year deadline under Article 50 of Lisbon Treaty for UK to leave, if voters choose 'out'.

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