When Hurricane Irma recently devastated the Caribbean, some people were surprised and angry at the fact that the UK could not use its international aid budget to help its affected overseas territories. Although the Department for International Development was quick to deny reports that the UK’s response to the hurricane had been affected, this did not prevent criticism of the rules surrounding aid and calls for them to be changed.

What is the aid budget?

The UK has a legal commitment to ensure that across the whole of Government, 0.7% of the country’s national income will be spent each year on aid (this came to £13.3 billion in 2016). Along with many other countries, the UK uses the OECD’s definition of aid (‘ODA’): it must be spent in low and middle-income countries, and must be mainly used for their economic development and welfare.

Why can’t it be used in this case?

The British overseas territories affected by Irma – Anguilla, Turks and Caicos and the British Virgin Islands – are all classified as high-income economies, with national incomes of over US$12,235 per person. This means that although the UK government is free to spend money on helping them, this spending may not be counted as aid, and must therefore be taken from sources other than the aid budget.

Which countries do get emergency aid?

There is no shortage of low and middle-income countries affected by disasters and emergencies, and the aid budget is frequently used to help these places. In 2015, the UK gave 91 different countries and regions a total of £1.3 billion in humanitarian aid, which covers the immediate response to emergencies, coping with their short-term aftermath, and work to be more prepared when another emergency strikes.

Chart showing top 10 recipients of UK humanitarian aid in 2015 (in millions): Syria - £202 Sierra Leone - £176 South Sudan - £130 Ethiopia - £79 Debeloping countries, unspecified - £76 Yemen - £75 Lebanon - £68 Iraq - £45 Somalia - £39 Nepal - £36 Note: Includes only bilateral aid (aid given directly to a country or programme). Source: DFID, Data underlying SID 2016, 17 November 2016

Dominica, which was hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria in quick succession, has also received aid from the UK. Because Dominica is not a high income country, this contribution – and the extra £5 million recently pledged for humanitarian needs and recovery – does come from the aid budget.

Can the rules be changed?

International development secretary Priti Patel has written to the OECD, asking for changes to its rules to reflect the fact that small island nations are particularly vulnerable to disasters like Irma despite their national income. She also suggested that the impact of natural disasters should lead to a change in how territories were defined for aid purposes.

The OECD’s aid definition has been changed before, most recently in 2014, when the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee agreed to modernise its statistical reporting system for aid, channel more money to poorer countries, and make technical changes to reporting of loans. However, this is a slow process, and requires the agreement of all 30 OECD members, so it appears unlikely that much will change in the short term; in any case, some NGOs, such as Christian Aid, think that the existing rules should not be changed.

Picture credit: An upturned catamaran yacht partially blocks the entrance to the marina of Nanny Cay on the British Virgin Island of Tortola. The Caribbean island suffered widespread damage and destruction when Hurricane Irma passed over on 6 September 2017 by DFID – UK Department for International Development.  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)