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25th Sep 2021

Defence spending may soon be classed as 'development aid'

  • After Ebei Kataboi Lokodet from Kenya lost all of her livestock during a severe period of drought, an aid-funded project is providing her with paid work to support her family. (Photo: Jane Beesley/Oxfam)

The world's major donors of development aid are considering a proposal to include some security and defence spending in their formal definition of aid.

In recent months, the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) has held heated debates on what should count as development aid.

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  • Development programmes in Northern Ghana support families, for example in becoming more resilient against food insecurity. (Photo: Adam Patterson/Oxfam)

The committee's definition of official development assistance (ODA) – also used by the EU, UN and the World Bank – could be altered at the DAC high-level meeting on Thursday and Friday in Paris.

Anti-poverty campaigners fear that the wider definition could allow rich countries to hit global targets on aid spending even if they use the money for other purposes.

The committee's current definition of ODA includes development and humanitarian aid, but not aid for military use.

DAC chairman Erik Solheim said the consequences of changing the definition would be limited in scope.

“We are talking about minor alterations, which would make aid more effective in a crisis situation and strengthen governance and security,” he told EUobserver.

Solheim, a former minister for development in Norway, said it would allow for training military staff in human rights and gender theory, as well as improving logistical solutions in emergency situations.

“For instance, the UK could have used military helicopters for delivering aid during the ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone,” he said.

This would have allowed the UK to “act faster, saving lives and money”, he said, but could not have been financed through the development budget under the current ODA definition.

Sara Tesorieri, from the anti-poverty campaign group Oxfam EU, fears that development aid will lose its focus if the definition is widened.

“Development aid is supposed to be about progress, not prevention,” she told Euobserver.

“We are all for preventing violent extremism, increasing transparency and training military personnel to avoid human rights abuses. We only oppose that these activities are financed through development aid budgets, whose essential goal is to lift people out of poverty.

"These other activities are important and can help enable development, but they aren't about eradicating poverty, and so should be financed through other budgets.”

Solheim said the changes would not take up more than “one or two percent” of the aid budgets. He promised personally to make sure that aid goals would not be endangered by the change.

'Principled stand'

Almost all DAC members back the idea to include some security and defence costs in the ODA definition.

An EU Commission source said there did not appear to be a problem with the proposal, but stressed it was up to the majority of members to decide on the definition.

Tesorieri, however, urged the EU to reject the plan.

“I would hope the commission takes a principled stand against the further expansion of eligibility of security costs, as it already finances peace and security operations,” she said.

She said the proposed changes could lead to severe consequences in the future.

Refugees and aid

Development assistance is currently under double pressure, as several European countries spend large amounts of their ODA in their own countries on refugee services.

In 2015, the Netherlands spent 27 percent of its ODA on refugees and Sweden spent 30 percent, making the Swedish Migration Agency its largest beneficiary of funds.

The current definition allows for development aid to cover housing, health services and education during the first 12 months of a refugee’s stay.

“It can appear that a country is spending a large amount of its gross national income on development, even reaching the [internationally agreed] 0.7 percent target, but if a good proportion of that money actually stays in Europe, it will still not lift people out of poverty,” said Tesorieri.

"EU governments feel under pressure, perceiving migration as a crisis and struggling to respond to the situation.

“But re-routing development aid to refugee reception in Europe is counterproductive as this does nothing to address the situations that people are fleeing from.”

Erik Solheim shares her concerns.

“The rules allow for it, but until 2014 countries used to use this possibility only sparsely,” he said.

"I am happy that big donors such as Germany and [the] UK don’t use ODA for their refugee reception. The money is very much needed in Africa.”

Misuse of ODA funds will not be on the DAC’s agenda this time.

“But we will look into rules in the future, with the goal of making them stricter rather than wider,” he said.

Meanwhile, over 113,000 people have signed Global Citizen, ONE and Oxfam’s petition that asks EU leaders to help the refugees “without doing so at the expense of the world's poorest”.

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