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Quality Not Quantity: Why Friday's 0.7% Aid Bill Should Allow Us to Focus on What Really Matters

28/02/2013 11:49 GMT | Updated 30/04/2013 10:12 BST

This week we have the opportunity to focus aid discussions on what really matters: quality not quantity.

On Friday, Mark Hendrick MP's private member's bill on international development aid will have its second reading in parliament. If passed, the bill would ensure the UK government's pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on international aid is enshrined in law and safeguarded for the future.

There's no doubt that aid has the potential to make an enormous difference to the lives of the world's poorest people. Yet the coalition government's commitment to the internationally agreed and now 40 year-old 0.7 per cent target has had its fair share of criticism. Opponents have questioned whether increasing the aid budget is the right thing to do, when other government department's budgets have been cut.

Despite this, the government has stayed on course and in 2013 will finally reach the 0.7 per cent target, with UK aid set to be just over £11 billion. This is a lot of money, but it's not an unreasonable amount, given the size of our economy and the scale of absolute poverty that still exists in many countries. £11 billion is less than the cost of food wasted in the UK each year, while at the same time over a billion people worldwide survive on less than $1.25 a day. That's under $40 a month.

But the whole point is that the aid debate shouldn't be limited to numbers - it only really starts there. A reasonable amount of 0.7 per cent was agreed in the 1970s and again in 1995. And that should have been where this debate stopped. Putting this law in place will meet Britain's international obligations and at the same time allow space to discuss the more important questions of how and where it is spent.

A rapidly changing world, with the rise of economies such as India and Brazil, and the fact that more poor people now live in middle-income countries than poor countries, raises questions about where we can best use aid to support countries to bring their populations out of poverty - thus helping to reduce their dependency on aid. Other debates such as whether aid should be delivered through the private sector, should focus on human or economic development, or how it can be most effective in conflict-affected states, all deserve proper attention. By putting the quantity of aid beyond doubt, we keep our promise to the people who need it most and also move the discourse on to what the UK Department for International Development's (DFID's) priorities should be.

In the last few years, DFID has been able to do new and innovative things with its increased budget. For example, UK aid is working to eliminate the most common infectious cause of blindness in the world through global mapping of trachoma - a disease that previously has been neglected, despite affecting more than 21 million people. The global survey, led by the international NGO Sightsavers, aims to identify where people are living at risk from this neglected tropical disease (NTD) and where treatment programmes are needed.

There's more to be done. UN estimates suggest that more than one billion people live with a disability around the world, and an estimated 39 million people are blind. Yet 80 per cent of those who are blind don't need to be, and UK aid could make a crucial difference to these people's lives. Developing a healthcare service which delivers good quality eye-health can restore sight to millions of people, improving their chances of getting a decent education and then a job - again reducing dependency on aid.

For those children whose sight cannot be restored, support to provide teachers with appropriate training, the provision of assistive devices and counselling for parents can also lead to a better chance of productive and independent lives for disabled children. Combined with macro-economic support, better trade policies and governance improvements, this can reduce dependency and mean that in the long run, we won't be arguing about quantity anymore, because aid won't be needed.

So back to the bill. Although proposed by a Labour MP, it has cross-party support, including from Conservative and Liberal Democrat members of the International Development Select Committee. In fact all three political parties made a commitment to this legislation in their manifestos, it was explicit in the coalition agreement, and was re-emphasised in its mid-term review just last month. So there is clearly a democratic mandate.

So far, this week's private member's bill is the closest we've come to seeing this pledge fulfilled. My hope is that parliamentarians from all parties recognise its importance and keep their promise to help the world's most vulnerable people by supporting this bill.