According to the statistics for 2016 compiled by the OECD Development Assistant Committee in Paris, Danish Official Development Assistance has reached its lowest point in 30 years. In 2015 the number was 0.85 percent of Gross National Income – but in 2016 it was down to 0.75 percent.

While the 0.75 percent is the lowest in decades, it is still good enough for Denmark to maintain a position among the top countries providing resources for development cooperation – some of the others being Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands. The number is also still above the target of 0.7 percent set by the United Nations almost 50 years ago.

So does Denmark have a problem? Does the Minister, Ulla Tørnæs, who is seen in the photo next to a Member of Parliament in Nepal, have a problem?

why only 0.7 percent?

The present government of the Liberal Party, the Conservatives and the Liberal Alliance has decided that Denmark should no longer reach for a target above what the international community has agreed. This means that the 0.75 percent recorded for 2016 is fully in line with the stated target of reaching 0,7 percent. As expressed by the MP and spokesperson for development in the Liberal Party, Michael Astrup Jensen:

“Before the election in June 2015, we said that we would like to see the amount for official development cooperation come down to the 0.7 percent agreed by the international community. We would rather spend the money for other needy areas, like the health sector. Of course, there is a need for good development projects. However, I have not been able to find the ‘money tree’ that some politicians in parliament believe exists. This is about priorities and politics, and we have made the necessary priorities.”

Therefore, while the government acknowledges that there are plenty of projects intended to reduce poverty, improve health and education, etc. that could actually deserve support from Denmark, the position seems to be that we should not do more than what we are required to do. Whatever money we can save by reducing the ODA budget to 0.7 percent should be used to invest in health and other areas in Denmark, to benefit the Danes.

While this is not a break with the target set by the international community, it is certainly a break with a decade long tradition by shifting Danish governments of doing more than required. Very few of the rich countries of the world have reached the 0.7 percent target (some like the US perform far below the target), and by pushing above the target, Danmark has been hoping to pull other countries in the right direction.

In addition, the high ODA budget has been an expression of what you could call the ‘soft power’ of a small country like Denmark. This approach has for decades been supported by a majority of Danes. It has not been seen as an expression of naivety, but rather as a way of contributing to stability in a world that is increasingly polarized and divided. A small country like Denmark needs a peaceful and stable global environment, and from this point of view, you could argue that ODA is a good investment.

punching above our weight

Personally, I feel that it is shortsighted of the government to give up the very strong leadership Denmark has shown consistently over many decades. At some point, the Danish target was even set at 1 (one) percent, because it was argued that the whole area of sustainable environment required additional funding over and above what was targeted for poverty reduction. This gave Denmark a much stronger and more legitimate voice in international affairs than a small population of five million in a very small territory would actually call for. In addition, with a large percentage of total ODA being allocated to international organisations like the United Nations, Denmark was also strongly respected in the halls of global dialogue.

It is an accepted truth that money is not everything! Huge amounts of ODA used badly does not benefit anyone (except a few corrupt managers maybe), least of all the poor. It is also widely accepted internationally that Danish ODA, managed by the Danida section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is of high quality. This has been documented by the assessments and peer review reports made by the OECD-DAC system.

Consequently, we can assume that cutting down Danish ODA to 0.7 percent means that a lot of useful projects that could benefit the poorest of the world will now be scrapped. We can also assume that the time for Denmark punching above its weight is ending in the near future.