In the days of pre-announcements, leaks, 24 hour news speculation and focus grouped policy proposals, it's rare to get anything close to a surprise in the big set piece Westminster events such as the state opening of parliament. However, for international development campaigners, many of us got a genuine surprise today when the government included a surprise reaffirmation of it's commitment to the 0.7% aid target in the Queen's speech.
As many people may have seen, in the speculation leading up to the Queen's speech, a number of papers reported that the government was effectively shelving it's own promise to put the internationally agreed 0.7% spending target into law. For those of use concerned with this issue, this seemed to signal a worrying political departure by the government, and a report in this week's Times suggested that the government's fulfillment of the UK's promises to support the world's poorest people and meet this spending target was soon to be back on the table for potential cuts.
Whilst the government stopped short of a promise to bring forth further legislation, disappointing and angering many in the sector, I believe after weeks of downplaying the target in the media, the mention of 0.7% in the Queen's speech at all gives those of us passionate about this issue license to now demand that the Government go further than a reaffirmed spending commitment and act immediately to keep it's promise and put 0.7 in law.
Of course in the midst of a double dip recession, it may be seen as somewhat politically difficult for the government to keep its coalition agreement pledge on this issue. But as all mainstream parties agree, we cannot let short term domestic politics stop us from keeping our long term promises to the world's poorest people. Legislating to spend 0.7% of our GNI on aid would, as Andrew Mitchell, the Secretary of State for International Development puts it "take it beyond doubt...It takes it out of politics".
This is a direct response to those who argue that the 0.7% target makes us focused on quantity rather than quality - why we must legislate so that we can stop having to defend the quantity of aid from short term political discussions, and can instead focus on the quality and efficiency of aid, and on ensuring it truly does save lives and support people out of extreme poverty. Legislation will secure funding and increase effectiveness by finally letting aid organisations move from fighting tooth and nail for their future into a full focus on their lifesaving work.
Examples of this abound. Since 1977 there has not been a single case of smallpox thanks to concerted efforts of a global eradication campaign. We have the opportunity to repeat this success again through our aid spending with polio. Over the last 25 years, we have reduced cases of polio by 99%. The UK has played a major part in this as one of the leading funders of Polio eradication efforts, meaning that now there are only three countries left on earth still suffering from Polio. Legislating for 0.7 would give our aid budget stability and could pave the way for the more secure funding needed to eradicate the debilitating disease of polio once and for all.
In the past thirty years the number of people living in extreme poverty has been more than halved - from 52% in 1982 to 25% in 2005, and recent figures have shown this number falling even further - down now to 1.3 billion. This is an incredible achievement, but for more than 1 in 7 people on the planet to continue to live on the equivalent of just a £1 a day (note: the world bank definition of extreme poverty - and it means what you could buy in the UK for a pound a day - not if you used a pound in an exchange rate) is clearly unjust. We must now press the Government to keep their own promises that would make the UK international leaders on this issue when countries such as Australia and Canada are cutting their budgets and breaking their promises.
That the government will spend 0.7% of GNI on aid is a historic achievement, but it means little without the secure underpinning of legislation to remove politics from the business of saving lives and supporting the world's poorest and most vulnerable people. Anyone who is passionate about the UK honouring our international commitments to save lives and help people move themselves out of poverty must use today's Government reaffirmation on 0.7% as a moment to increase our pressure and insist that it keeps it's own promise in this parliamentary session.
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