Cameron can’t ‘give the aid budget to MoD’ because he can’t change the law

David Cameron told reporters this week that he would be open to the idea of aid money being spent on military peacekeeping operations. The prime minister won't be able to fill gaps in the defence budget with aid money, however, because the law won't allow it.

On the flight back from his trip to India this week, the prime minister spoke to the press pack traveling with him about the aid budget.

The BBC headlined his comments as ‘Aid money could go to defence’, while the Daily Mail went further with the headline ‘Cameron to divert aid millions to avoid defence cuts and free up cash for equipment’ and the Sun went further still with ‘PM: I’ll raid aid cash to pay MoD’.

We don’t know if Cameron intended to drop this story, but the presence on his trip of two canny and experienced political journalists who have both previously been defence correspondents (the Sun’s Tom Newton Dunn and the Mail’s Tim Shipman) might have steered Cameron’s Q&A session down this path.

Read the Sun or the Daily Mail and it looks like a bit of smart political positioning during the Eastleigh by-election using some dog-whistle politics. Read the BBC report and it looks like a bit of a statement of the status quo.

But that didn’t stop NGOs like Oxfam responding with outrage and demanding that aid be spent on ‘schools and not soldiers’.

The reality is that a billion people across the globe who live in poverty do so in conflict affected and fragile states.

Schools do indeed prevent wars, but sometimes you need soldiers to liberate schools and restore law and order.

Over the last decade, billions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money has been spend on ‘stabilisation’, ‘peacekeeping’ and all manner of ‘conflict prevention’ in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other conflict afflicted countries.

The international community now expresses regrets about not doing more in Rwanda and may one day feel the same about Syria, Mali and even Gaza.

The world’s capacity to absorb taxpayers money is endless so politicians need to be clear about what they are trying to achieve. When he was development secretary, Douglas Alexander published a White Paper which re-prioritised DFID’s spending on conflict affected states.

It was welcome by think tanks & charities alike because it avoided stepping across the line into the ‘securitisation of aid’.

I’ve written before about the false trade-off in what I describe as the ‘bednets vs body armour’ debate. But charities can take some comfort from the fact that if the prime minister really does want to use the aid budget to back fill cuts to the defence budget, he will need to repeal the International Development Act.

That law ensures that aid is only spent on “furthering sustainable development or promoting the welfare of people that is likely to contribute to the reduction of poverty.”

There is no chance the prime minster will risk such a vote at the moment because it would expose his failure to keep his manifesto pledge to enshrine aid spending at 0.7% in law. On page 117 of the Conservative manifesto, the commitment is clear:

“A new Conservative government will be fully committed to achieving, by 2013, the UN target of spending 0.7% of national income as aid. We will stick to the rules laid down by the OECD about what spending counts as aid. We will legislate in the first session of a new Parliament to lock in this level of spending for every year from 2013.”

Now in the third session of this Parliament there is still no sign of the promised legislation, despite valiant efforts by Mark Hendrick MP to use a Private Members Bill to force a vote.

So despite the headlines, Cameron won’t change his policy because he can’t change the law.

And for that very reason, NGOs should remember that future governments will be similarly constrained by a law on 0.7% but that the 2015 manifestos might not repeat that commitment if that law doesn’t get passed before the next election.

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