DEBATING THE LEVEL OF ODA IN 2018
The Danish government recently presented the State Budget for 2018, and this will be negotiated among the parties represented in Parliament over the coming months. Most Danes – and media commentators – will naturally first of all be concerned about the parts of the proposal [consisting of several thousand pages] that have to do with their daily living conditions – the quality of social services, how much will be spent on hospitals, the level of personal income tax, other forms of taxes, the cost of buying a new cars, etc. The volume from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is only 150 pages long, presenting what Danish Kroner 15.878.000 million will be spent on for Overseas Development Assistance [ODA].
This is not likely to be discussed very much among socalled ‘ordinary’ Danes – nor among politicians for that matter! However, it will of course be an important topic for people – like myself – who follow Danish development cooperation closely. It was also the topic for a meeting organized by the organisation called IDA Global Development, where the Minister presented the budget and explained how it reflects the key priorities of the government: More support for peace, security and protection; more support to migration into Denmark and repatriation of asylum seekers not allowed to stay; more focus on inclusive and sustainable growth; and focus on values – democracy, human rights and gender equality.
The minister Ulla Tørnæs [who by the way has been a very active supporter of the work of the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy and travelled to Nepal with me on a mission some years ago] made it clear, as she has done repeatedly since the present government came to power, that she is proud of the level and quality of Danish aid. Denmark provides 0,7% of GNI, which is the minimum requested by the UN, and the qualityis high. This has recently resulted in Denmark coming in first in the Commitment to Development Index for 2017, ahead of two other Nordic countries, Sweden and Finland. [See also separate story on this index.]
The Minister is certainly correct in stating that Denmark is doing extremely well on ODA compared to most other developed countries. However, I do not agree that this should necessarily be the only way to measure our contribution. I think it is fair to continue arguing for a higher level, considering how rich a country Denmark is. I would like to see Denmark return to the target of 1%, because the state of affairs around the world requires those of us, who can afford it, to contribute more. Denmark can afford it!
This message was emphasized in the comments and questions raised by the Secretary General of MS Action Aid, Tim Whyte, when he commented on the presentation by the Minister. As written by and with permission from journalist Jesper Heldgaard:
”I know the Minister is tired of hearing this,” Tim Whyte said. “But it is nevertheless correct that we are spending a historically low amount on development cooperation. This happens at a time when we need more that ever before. We need to achieve the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals, manage climate change and help Africa, where the migrants come from. You have cut, while others talk about a Marshall Plan for Africa.”
I had also been asked to prepare some questions for the Minister, and the first issue I brought up was our focus on Africa – or rather what I see as a decreasing focus on Africa. The graph below shows that from 30% of ODA going to Africa in 2011, we were now down to around 10%. This comes at a time when the new book by former President of Nigeria, Obasanjo, and Greg Mills point to the dramatic challenges facing Africa, not least with the additional 1 billion people joining the continent around 2050. So my question was if this was an expression of real will from Denmark to invest the necessary to support Africa?
Rather than interpreting the answer by the Minister myself, I prefer to quote how journalist Jesper Heldgaard saw the exchange between the Minister and myself:
”A Danish Ambassador for Repatriation might be able to get 10 asylum seekers returned to one African country, and maybe five to another country. This amounts to almost nothing,” the veteran of development cooperation Bjørn Førde stated straight out. He did not expect much to be achieved by the new initiative of 75 million Danish kroner, which he considered to be a signal to the political debate in Denmark rather something that would have an impact on the flow of refugees.”
”Wrong!” the Minister replied. “This initiative sends a clear and unequivocal signal to millions of young people in Africa, telling them that their future is not in Europe. I just visited Benin City and met some of the many young people thirsting for a job. These jobs must be found in Africa, and we are ready to help create them. This is not a something for something effort, but a more for more initiative.”
My next issue focused on UN. I asked the Minister if the numbers [seen in the slide below] in the state budget allocated for the UN [10% of total ODA] was reasonable compared to the 11,5% allocated for the various development banks, and the 8,5% now being allocated for the EU system. I admitted that the percentage could be a bit higherthan 10% if other allocations various places in the budget were chanelled through the UN system, but I still argued that the Danish position of being a strong partner of the UN system has weakened compared to what was the case one or two decades ago. I also argued that the UN organisations right now are extremely weak, and many lack the resources to deliver what the international community expect and require.
I also argued that Denmark is failing to support the key organisation in the UN system, UNDP, with adequate resources. Again I will let journalist Jesper Heldgaard report:
”I am an old hand in UNDP,” Bjørn Førde said, “so my support for UNDP does not come as a surprise. You should be complimented for your strong focus on women and gender equality, but I never thought that one day, UNFPA would receive more funding from Denmark than UNDP, which after all is the nerve centre of development in the UN, and has the responsibility of coordinating activities at country level.”
”I am proud of the large support for UNFPA and the work they do for women, girls, equality and also the key role in managing population growth,” the Minister answered. “And the numbers do not tell the whole story. We contribute to both the UN and UNDP through other budget lines than those mentioned here.”
How did the meeting end? I don’t think it can be articulated any better than what journalist Jesper Heldgaard writes about the concluding statement from the Minister:
”There is not a majority in favor of an increase of ODA. All the parties – except for the Red-Green Alliance – have agreed that ODA should be 0.7% of BNI as a minimum. I listened to the debate on the State Budget proposal in Parliament a few days ago, and no party mentioned ODA. The Social Democrats presented a so-called proposal, with a lot of words but without numbers. The reality of Danish politics is that there is agreement on the 0.7% and using this amount as well and effectively as possible,” the Minister concluded, while the participants in the meeting listened with resignation.