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British PM rejects pressure on aid budget

by Staff Writers
London (AFP) May 18, 2011
British Prime Minister David Cameron insisted Tuesday he would keep his promise to set in law a hike in the overseas aid budget, despite a challenge by a senior minister.

In a leaked letter, Defence Secretary Liam Fox warned that making a legal commitment to increase aid spending to 0.7 percent of gross national income by 2013 could tie the government's hands if it could not afford it.

"The government is committed to the 0.7 percent," Cameron told lawmakers Tuesday. "We are going to achieve that in the timeframe that we set out. We will be bringing forward legislation in this parliament (by 2015)."

The pledge to ringfence the aid budget has angered some on the right of the Conservative party, of which Cameron and Fox are both members, as it coincides with huge cuts in spending at other government departments.

"I cannot support the proposal in its current form," Fox wrote in the letter to Cameron, revealed in the Times newspaper.

"The bill could limit (the government's) ability to change its mind about the pace at which it reaches the target in order to direct more resources toward other activities or programmes rather than aid."

Alan West, a former head of the British Navy, criticised Cameron in Wednesday's Times.

"I am afraid that David Cameron is trying to show the Conservative party is in the centre ground with these liberal views, rather than thinking about what is important for the nation," he said.

"If times really are that hard then you have got to look after yourself and your defence because no one else will."

Cameron's government has introduced harsh public spending cuts to remove a huge deficit by the next election in 2015, with Fox's Ministry of Defence among those forced to shed thousands of jobs.

Reports quoted sources close to Fox as insisting that he was not opposed to the 0.7 percent target itself, which was set by rich nations at the United Nations in 1970, but how it was reflected in law.

Quizzed about overseas aid by a parliamentary committee Tuesday, Cameron refused to condemn Fox and admitted that it would be tough to find the money.

Britain spent about 0.56 percent of gross national income on overseas aid last year, according to provisional government figures, so reaching the target would require a huge hike.

The UN target "is a difficult commitment to make at a time when we're making reductions elsewhere", Cameron said.

But he added: "I profoundly think it is the right thing to do because we have a duty to the poorest in our world even at times of hardship at home."

He also said it was in Britain's national interest to try to "rebuild some of these broken countries" which may foster global insecurity.

One group, the global anti-poverty organisation founded by Irish rock star Bono, praised Britain in a study on Monday for making "commendable progress towards its very ambitious target" to increase aid to sub-Saharan Africa.

But the study noted that overall the Group of Eight (G8) richest nations gave only 61 percent of the extra aid they promised to sub-Saharan Africa by 2010, with Italy, France and Germany the worst offenders.

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