Tuesday, 19 October 2004

Questions (15, 16, 17)

Bernard Allen

Question:

156 Mr. Allen asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if the Government will achieve the United Nations target for overseas development aid by 2007; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25416/04]

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Ruairí Quinn

Question:

157 Mr. Quinn asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if it is his intention to achieve the UN target for overseas development aid within the period announced to the UN General Assembly; his views on whether the allocation in 2003 left the percentage virtually unchanged; the progress he expects to make in each year to the target year 2007; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25371/04] ]

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John Gormley

Question:

158 Mr. Gormley asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the reason the Government’s commitment to increase overseas aid spending to the UN target of 0.7% of GNP by 2007 will not be met; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25372/04]

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Oral answers (80 contributions) (Question to Minister for Foreign)

I propose to take Questions No. 156 to 158, inclusive, together.

The programme for Government commitsthe Government to spending 0.7% of GNP onofficial development aid by 2007. The Government will make every effort to meet that target. Our spending on official development aid has increased dramatically in recent years. In 1997 we spent €158 million on ODA. This year we will spend approximately €475 million. Our aid as a percentage of GNP has also increased significantly in the intervening years. In 1992 the figure was 0.16% of GNP. Last year it was 0.4% of GNP.

These increases mean that Ireland is now one of the world's leading aid donors. We are in joint seventh place in terms ofper capita spending on aid, well above the European average. The negotiations for the Estimates for 2005 are currently under way. The Government is committed to building quickly on the substantial progress to date in order to achieve the UN target of 0.7%. The figures for 2002 and 2003 were lower than we would have hoped. However, this was against the background of the economic slowdown that affected all areas of public expenditure. We should be proud of what has been achieved in our development aid programme. Our peers in the OECD regularly evaluate us. The most recent evaluation in 2003 concluded that our development programme is of the highest quality. The taxpayer is getting good value for money. The OECD review stated that our programme distinguishes itself by its sharp focus on poverty reduction and commitment to partnership principles. The focus of our development programme is in line with the UN’s millennium development goals. These goals were set by the international community as a framework by which the commitment to reduce poverty in the world can be judged.

To reduce poverty we must tackle the underlying causes as well as the symptoms. This means that in addition to providing immediate relief to those suffering from conflict, disaster and famine, we must tackle the underlying causes of poverty through long-term assistance programmes. The focus of our programme is on assisting long-term economic growth and the provision of basic services such as education and health care. Good governance, inclusive political processes and human rights are also important elements of our programme.

I am confident that Ireland has a high quality development aid programme with the proper focus on poverty reduction. I intend to make a strong case in the course of the Estimates process for substantial increases so as to reach the UN target of 0.7%.

The Minister stated that we will make every effort to meet the target. Does he agree that this comment is a major retreat from the Taoiseach's solemn commitment made in 2000, when he claimed that we would make the 0.7% target by 2007? Does the Minister agree that that comment was made to get a seat on the UN Security Council? Like the promises made before the last election, this promise has evaporated. In order to meet the target, there are three opportunities in the three budgets before 2007. The first step in reaching the target is to increase the spending to about €570 million this year, increase it to €724 million in 2006 and bring it up to the €892 million required to meet the 0.7% target by 2007.

Can the Minister give a commitment that the Government will bring forward legislation to provide that 0.7% of GNP will be allocated directly to overseas development aid? Enacting legislation will safeguard that budget.

The Deputy has asked a number of questions, the most pertinent of which is on the 0.7% of GNP target. That remains the target of the Government and was arrived at by Cabinet decision. If he listened to both the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach in recent days and weeks, the Deputy would know that target remains in place. We intend to achieve it in line with the Government decision. Some people seem to have mistakenly formed the opinion that I reneged on that commitment. I simply expressed a certain amount of scepticism about our ability to reach the target within the given time frame. The Deputy should not be under any illusion; the time frame for the commitment remains there——

The Minister of State should answer ‘yes' or ‘no'.

The Deputy should allow the Minister to speak without interruption.

The commitment remains to be achieved. For the purposes of discussion on the Estimates, my Department will go into discussions with other Departments and will make the case that the target should be achieved within the time frame outlined.

The idea of needing to incorporate the commitment within legislation is a double-edged instrument. One of the dangers of doing that is that it would lead to calls in other areas, such as health and education, for similar types of commitment. In general, the management of the public service demands a certain amount of flexibility in resource allocation between different Departments. There is also a much used argument against such a particular measure, which is that if the economy was subject to a sharp reduction in growth, then the overall amounts of money available to overseas development aid would sharply reduce in actual amounts. That is a result that most of us would profoundly regret. An instrument designed to guarantee a particular result would actually achieve the exact opposite when our economy went into reverse. For those reasons the Government would discount such a proposal.

I congratulate the Minister officially on his appointment. I think this is the first time he has taken questions. For those of us who have had that experience, including Deputy Allen, it is not in the same category as a maiden speech, but it is not far away.

Is the commitment to reach the target of 0.7% by 2007 the same as the commitment to deliver on benchmarking? In other words, is the Government's commitment to deliver on benchmarking as solid and as clear as the Minister's commitment to use every effort to reach 0.7% of GNP? Are these on the same level, of a similar reliability? My second question is on the idea to put the commitment on a statutory basis. Does the Minister see any difference between that commitment and the one made by the former Minister of Finance in statutory terms, irrespective of the economic circumstances of the day, to commit €1 billion or 1% of GNP to our national pension reserve fund? That is now enshrined in legislation. There is no provision for a downturn in the economy. Why can the same type of commitment not be made to the Third World as is being made to our future pension requirements?

I thank the Deputy for his gracious comments on my latest appointment. For the Department of Finance benchmarking is an issue. The bulk of benchmarking actually has been delivered at this stage. The remainder has yet to be delivered and some of it is subject to local agreement on improvements in performance and efficiency.

Is it subject to negotiation or is it given?

I am not the Minister of Finance and I will not make pronouncements on his behalf. He may take umbrage at them. The pension provision is also an entirely separate matter for the Department of Finance. There is an issue with holding percentage figures in stone. The effect of that is that if there is a reverse in the economy, the actual amount will decrease.

What does that do to benchmarking?

I will not answer the question despite the best efforts of the Deputy, as it is not my Department. The right person to direct that question——

I am talking about the level of commitment in Government terms.

The Deputy should direct that question——

Benchmarking is sacrosanct; this is variable.

I am not suggesting for a minute that it is variable. In my reply to Deputy Allen, I made it absolutely clear that the figure of 0.7% by 2007 is enshrined by a Cabinet decision. It can only be unwound despite——

He claimed he made a strong case.

Despite pronouncements by Deputies on both sides of the House on this matter, it would not have been possible for me to renege on such a promise, as I am not a member of the Cabinet. It has not arrived at a position other than the position as stated routinely in the programme for Government and by the Taoiseach and other members of the Government. That is that the figure remains intact and it is the target of all efforts to achieve that target by the date prescribed.

Will he do it?

I join others in congratulating the Deputy on his elevation. I feel it is deserved. The Minister of State has said that he expressed scepticism. Can his statement be attributed to naivety and inexperience, or was it choreographed? Had he spoken to other members of the Cabinet before he made his statement? The Taoiseach said in Bodenstown that a firm decision has been made, but he was unclear when he was asked about the 2007 deadline. I would like the Minister of State to clarify whether the commitment has been copperfastened. Will the Minister of State deliver the 0.7% target by 2007?

I invite the Minister of State to comment on another intriguing comment made by the Taoiseach at Bodenstown. He said he knew that some people in the audience would like to relate aid with trade. Perhaps the Minister of State, who was in the audience, can explain to the House what the Taoiseach meant by that comment.

The Deputy asked a number of questions. I thank him for his good wishes. I wish to put one suggestion to bed immediately. Neither naivety nor choreography led to my use of the phraseology I used when speaking about the 0.7% target during an interview with RTE on 5 October last. I said, based on my experience of financial and management issues when I was working in the private sector, that when one is trying to achieve a target, one must examine realistically the figures that underpin it.

The Minister of State should stop while he is ahead.

I expressed my opinion after I had studied the books and examined the percentages in the Department of Foreign Affairs. I wish to make clear that our ability to achieve the target was disturbed somewhat by the downturn in 2002 and 2003. The moneys which would have made it much easier to achieve the target were not devoted at that time.

I wish to respond to the question asked by Deputy Gormley by speaking about the wider issue of whether the capacity to achieve the 0.7% figure exists in the Department of Foreign Affairs and the NGO sector. Would it be good to make a splurge of funding available at a particular time by simply transferring moneys to projects in the Third World? It is obvious that one can distribute aid at the drop of a hat. There is a huge wellspring of need. Issues of capacity arise as we try to increase overseas development aid.

Mr. David O'Donoghue has said——

We need to try to improve the capacity of the non-governmental organisations and their organisations and staff.

It is a strange one.

There is no capacity.

We should increase resources at departmental level to ensure that aid is spent in a proper fashion.

Will the 2007 target be achieved?

It is not just me who has made this——

The Minister of State is not answering the question. Will the 2007 target be achieved?

I have said that the Government remains committed to achieving that target. As I understand it, the Cabinet has not made a decision to the contrary. The Tánaiste and the Taoiseach have spoken about this matter over the past week. When I addressed the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs on 12 October last, I made it quite clear that the 2007 target is the focal point of the Government's activity.

Is it as firm as benchmarking?

That is the target we are trying to achieve. We will work as hard as we can, in the context of the forthcoming Estimates, to achieve the level of funding that will allow the target to be reached. I cannot make it any clearer.

What about aid and trade?

Before I speak about aid and trade——

I ask the Minister of State to conclude so that Deputies can ask supplementary questions.

I wish to address an issue which is quite relevant. Mr. John O'Shea of GOAL has said that he would favour a smaller budget which is spent carefully to an enlarged budget which is not spent carefully. That is a very relevant point.

Who would not spend it carefully?

I do not refer to the comments of a Government spokesman, but of an independent source.

Who would not spend it carefully?

I do not have to tell the Deputy that planned growth is an issue. I think he ran an architect's practice before he was elected to this House — he is probably still involved in such areas. No increase in spending should be sanctioned by the State if we are not absolutely clear that the State is getting value for money.

What about electronic voting?

When one speaks about the Third World——

That is a new one.

——one should consider the sort of regimes which can exist there.

Aid is now related to value for money.

There is huge scope for the misuse of funds in such regimes.

I ask the Minister of State to conclude.

It is important that Ireland's overseas aid should be spent in a proper fashion.

Nobody is arguing with that.

Ireland has a very good international reputation.

Does that mean we should not pursue the 0.7% target?

The OECD has praised Ireland's programme twice in recent years on these precise grounds. Every country in the world does not receive such an appraisal, but Ireland has received such an accolade. The Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and I are determined to ensure that remains the case. Regarding the relationship between aid and trade——

Give us a chance.

The Minister of State will have to conclude.

I have to wait for the Deputy to ask about that issue.

I will allow Deputy Allen to ask a supplementary question.

With respect, Deputy Gormley asked about relating aid with trade.

I have to allow other Deputies to ask supplementary questions.

The Minister of State mentioned the OECD on a number of occasions. Does he accept that the most recent OECD report stated that the Government is "faltering" in its attempts to reach the target? Does the Minister of State doubt the capacity of the non-governmental organisations to spend the €570 million they expect to receive this year? I have heard such a suggestion today for the first time.

That is what he is saying.

The Minister of State is casting doubt on the organisations. He said that if the organisations receive additional money, he doubts their capacity and that of the Department to allocate it.

I am anxious to allow other Deputies to speak.

The Minister of State also questioned the organisations' efficiency and ability to spend the money effectively. That is a new one on me. I ask the Minister of State to clarify his position in that regard.

The Deputy is misrepresenting me.

I will take supplementary questions from Deputies Gormley and Quinn.

I asked a specific question about the Taoiseach's comments at Bodenstown about relating aid with trade. He said that certain people in the audience at Bodenstown want aid to be related to trade. I did not see too many people there, so the Taoiseach must have been talking about specific people. I would like further information in that regard. That some members of the Government do not consider the question of aid to be a vote winner seems to me to be a problem. Such people would prefer the money to be spent in other ways. They want to spend money on aid only if it will generate trade. That always seems to be the Government's bottom line.

If there is a problem with capacity, as perceived by the Department of Foreign Affairs in terms of the national development co-operation programme, does the Minister of State agree that the target could be reached and our moneys spent wisely by investing prudently in the global fund for combating AIDS, to which the Taoiseach has so eloquently committed himself? There is no capacity constraint, in reality. Doing it efficiently may involve domestic difficulties, but the balance of funding required to meet the target could be invested in a number of internationally approved global funds, such as the global fund for combating AIDS, which is totally under-subscribed.

I ask the Minister of State to conclude, because the time for this question has elapsed.

The answer to Deputy Allen's question is "No". The Government does not question the current capacity of the Department or the non-governmental organisations to deal with the funds which are being allocated to the organisations or flowing from the Department. There is absolutely no issue there. We will significantly increase funding for overseas development assistance as we try to achieve the target figure of 0.7%. It is obvious that the Government's plans to improve significantly the level of aid have implications for resources and staffing.

We have to move on.

Deputy Gormley raised the possibility of a connection between trade and aid. I am not in a position to read into, interpret or extrapolate from the Taoiseach's comments in Bodenstown, but I imagine that he was trying to highlight the fact that a number of countries in Europe and elsewhere are increasing the pressure to link overseas development aid with trade issues. In other words, such countries want to use the overseas development aid they provide as a tool to access more trading opportunities in the countries which receive such aid. I think the Taoiseach was saying, from a deeply idealistic point of view, that Ireland does not approve of such an approach to overseas development aid and rejects it in all circumstances.

The Minister of State was saying quite the opposite.

That is very important.

We have to move to the next question.

That is how I read the Taoiseach's comments. Deputy Quinn is absolutely correct to say that if we had a surfeit of money for overseas development aid but a shortage of programmes to which it could be distributed, it could be given to funds such as the global fund for combating AIDS. Ireland's contribution to that fund has increased by ten times in recent years, from €5 million to €50 million.

I have to call QuestionNo. 159.

The next point I would like to make is that to do so would be rather purposeless. We would be better developing our programmes organically, growing and improving them and expanding the number of countries we prioritise and target.

The time allowed for the question has expired.