Over the last two days, ISGlobal has been involved in a small experiment: we have travelled to London to learn about the British aid system. The group included five members of parliament from three different parties (we invited several of them – including Podemos – but only received a positive response from the people´s party, the socialist and Catalan parties), a political advisor from the Office of the Secretary-General for Development Cooperation, and three representatives from Spanish think tanks. The purpose of the trip – financed by the Gates Foundation – was to encourage the possibility of an agreement that would revive the Spanish aid and cooperation policies, which have been heavily affected by budget cuts and marginalised from other political priorities.
The group included five members of parliament, a political advisor from the Office of the Secretary-General for Development Cooperation, and three representatives from Spanish think tanks
The trip has also largely been a search for inspiration: the United Kingdom is a rare case in which foreign aid and development policies have been deeply entrenched as a strategic priority of the labour and conservative governments that have been in power since 1997. The British became leaders in promoting the concept of “value for money” in the fight against poverty. They set up DFID (the institution responsible for administering oversees aid and led by a Secretary of State), a Parliamentary Committee that monitors the administration and spending of DFID resources, and an independent body responsible for the scrutiny of all UK aid. This has happened alongside an increase in resources which last year reached the symbolic figure of 0.7% of GNI: over 16,700 million euros. The figure is ten times higher than the Spanish one, although their economy is only 2.4 times larger than ours.
The British became leaders in promoting the concept of “value for money” in the fight against poverty. Last year, an increase in resources reached the symbolic figure of 0.7% of GNI
On the trip we have met with Members of Parliament, government representatives, think tanks such as ODI and CGD, and with local NGOs such as Oxfam, Action Aid and Christian Aid. The trip has also given us the opportunity to have some really interesting conversations among ourselves. Here are some of the issues we discussed:
- It is obvious that our own capabilities are light-years away from those of the British aid system. But their experience shows what a society and political parties can do to turn the fight against poverty into a symbol of their country’s presence in the world. In a somewhat clumsier way, Spain did the same thing from 2004 onwards, when the country implemented its “diplomacy of aid” strategy in regions like Africa and thereby discovered that this is a cheap and easy way of taking a stance on a global scale, and that which is of benefit to others is also an opportunity for oneself. In the United Kingdom, the political commitment preceded any increase in resources or institutional reform.
- In our lifetime, there is no chance the Spanish aid budget will ever be as large as the British one. But it is still worth asking how much can be done with little money, or with other people’s money. Knowledge exchange (in the areas of health, energy or taxation, for example) and the support of institutional reform, could form the basis of a foreign aid and development strategy for middle-income or lower middle-income countries in Latin America and south of the Mediterranean. These countries have high poverty and inequality rates, but their governments are now asking for our know-how and expertise, rather than our money. The aid system then becomes a catalyst for promoting the resources found among our scientific teams, renewable energy businesses or our Tax Agency. And perhaps the Germans, a multilateral bank or the recipient countries themselves will be willing to pay for services which are of interest to them.
- It is not possible to do everything at once. While having infinitely more resources than us, the British have shown an ability to use them in a much more focused way. They have reduced to a handful the number of priority issues (such as the reconstruction of fragile states) and they have limited to fewer than thirty the number of countries in which they work. Should Spain not consider going about it in a similar way? The Spanish government has reduced the number of countries in which it works, but the most strategic decisions are those which focus on specific areas: are we capable of becoming the global specialists in the fight against diseases of poverty like malaria? Can we make a significant and permanent contribution on nutrition in the Sahel region? In the coming years our aid system will have to act in a much more focused way, or it will fail.
Are we capable of becoming the global specialists in the fight against diseases of poverty like malaria?
- The human resources Spain has abroad is mind blowing. On Tuesday night we dined with a handful of Spaniards who work in British universities, think-tanks and development NGOs. With their knowledge, experience and commitment they are not only a source of inspiration, but also an asset the Spanish aid strategy needs to take into account. Thus another good idea, which would not cost any money, is to establish some solid connections with these people.
These are some of the issues that we have discussed on this trip. It is more than likely that, if general elections take place in Spain next November, strategic and budgetary issues will be hot topics of debate, more than they have been until now. We have the opportunity to design a foreign aid strategy that is both ethical and intelligent. Let’s do it.