Overseas Development Assistance must remain a Government priority

Posted on Wednesday, 5 May 2021
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The 2020 United Nations Human Development Report is written in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, a virus that quickly spread around the globe due to our increasingly interconnected world, but whose impacts have very different consequences for wealthier nations. Those who are rich have been first in line for vaccinations and also have access to better healthcare and living conditions than the vast majority of those in the Global South. However, the Report does not lose sight of the crises which existed before the pandemic. Climate change, which has caused extreme weather events in Australia, the Brazilian Pantanal, eastern Siberia, and the West Coast of the United States, remains the defining crisis of our time. If, the Report asks, we are entering a new epoch where humans can define the shape of our planet, what should that shape look like? Do we want to return to “normal” (whatever that may be) or should we strive to forge a new path, expanding human freedoms while easing planetary pressures?

Today, average life expectancy is 20 years higher for people in the richest countries compared to those in Sub-Saharan Africa. The UN also reports that almost one in three adults in Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are unable to read. These inequalities are also reflected in the sizeable differences in income levels (GNI per person) and in mortality rates.

The Germanwatch Global Climate Risk Index 2021 which ranks countries according to their extreme weather risks, shows that less developed countries are generally more affected than industrialised countries. Of the ten most affected countries in 2019, eight out of the ten belong to the category ‘low to lower-middle income’. Five of them fall into the category ‘Least Developed Countries’. Between 2000 and 2019, six were developing countries in the low income or lower-middle income country groups, two, Thailand and Dominica, were classified as upper-middle income countries, and one (Puerto Rico) was an advanced economy generating high income.

About 475,000 people died as a direct result of more than 11,000 extreme weather events globally during the period, and losses between 2000 and 2019 amounted to around US$2.56 trillion (in purchasing power parities). Heatwave-fuelled droughts are being felt, first and foremost, in developing countries; however those countries most at risk of heatwaves are most under-represented in the research.

The effects of climate change have increased the vulnerability of many communities, leading to enforced migration, internal displacement, poverty, hunger and even death. Food production is a huge challenge for communities constantly forced to move.

This is why Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) is so important. The United Nations-agreed target for developed countries like Ireland is to provide 0.7 per cent of national income in development aid. Since 2008, when Ireland’s ODA reached a peak of 0.59 per cent of GNP, expenditure as a proportion of national income (regardless of how that is measured) decreased significantly. In monetary terms, 2014 was the worst year for ODA in Ireland, contributing just €614.9 million. While welcome increases have been made in subsequent years, the shortfalls have not yet been regained. This limits the resources available for tackling extreme poverty, hunger, and human rights abuses. This funding is needed now more than ever, as developing countries attempt to get to grips with Covid-19 and the resultant economic disruption. This crisis has exposed afresh the depth of the inequalities within and between countries.

Budget 2021 allocated €837m in overseas aid, i.e. 0.42 per cent of modified Gross National Income (GNI*), which is a more accurate indicator of national income than either GNP or GDP.  Reaching the UN Goal of 0.7 per cent of GNI* in the years ahead will require increased effort. Our national recovery should not interfere with our international obligations, particularly to those who are most vulnerable to global shocks such as a pandemic and climate change.

The Department of Foreign Affairs, and indeed the Irish Government, regularly cite the positive assessments of Irish Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) given by international bodies. The OECD’s most recent Development Assistance Committee (DAC) Peer Review of Ireland noted how ‘Ireland’s approach to partnerships reflects the strong support for civil society and dedication to multilateralism that are hallmarks of its development co-operation.’. We can be justifiably proud of our record of providing high quality, untied, grant-based aid. We can be especially proud that we allocate a greater proportion of aid to Least Developed Countries than the vast majority of other OECD countries do.

However, Ireland still lacks a strategy for reaching the UN target, a missed opportunity in the publication of ‘A Better World: Ireland’s Policy for International Development’ in February 2019.  Notwithstanding our current economic difficulties, Ireland must continue to recover lost ground in relation to our ODA commitments if developing countries are to have a chance of emerging from this pandemic.