Spain blocks its overseas aid pipeline

Government donated 0.15 percent of GDP when 2012 target had been 0.7 NGOs forced to abandon projects due to drastic withdrawal of funding

A project to provide drinking water to people in rural Mozambique, by Engineering Without Borders.
A project to provide drinking water to people in rural Mozambique, by Engineering Without Borders.

Spain slashed its development aid to poor countries by nearly 50 percent between 2011 and 2012, the largest cut by any member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Figures released last week show that Spain contributed over 1.9 billion dollars (around 1.5 billion euros), representing 0.15 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It is a far cry from the 0.7 percent of GDP by 2012 targeted by the previous government of the Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

Spanish contribution to development aid reached a high in 2008 (0.5 percent of GDP) under Zapatero. Since then, coinciding with the economic crisis in the country, it has dropped by 70 percent. "With this brutal cut we are back to late 1980s levels," said a spokeswoman for the CONGD umbrella group for non-profits.

"We are honoring our commitment to development aid, but budget adjustments are forcing us to make cuts," said a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry. "We also need to note that most of the cuts were made to multilateral aid agencies such as United Nations bodies, who perfectly understood it; they do not affect the non-profits."

Yet it seems like the effect of the crisis is not the same for everyone. As the CONGD underscores, other countries in a theoretically worse position than Spain have not reduced development aid nearly as much. Portugal has cut by 12 percent and Greece by 17 percent, while the average reduction among members of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC, comprising the wealthiest states) was four percent.

The OECD's secretary general, Angel Gurría, strikes an optimistic note, underscoring that despite the financial situation, nine out of the 23 member states have increased their development assistance. Meanwhile, NGOs are struggling to weather the storm.

The damage is also to Spain as a brand; it is defaulting on its commitments"

"We'll really start feeling it late this year, because plans are long term," says Toni Bruel, coordinator general for the Red Cross. This agency, which attracts the largest amount of Spain's state funding, has established several priority programs: "Food safety, water sanitation and the prevention of malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS."

"That phrase about a crisis being an opportunity is too optimistic," he adds. "With less money, you can do fewer things. That does not mean that we aren't at a time of change. We want development work to be more relevant, to have greater impact, and perhaps to be increasingly attuned to the interests of the target country."

In the past, he explains, Spain contributed a lot of money to multilateral programs like the World AIDS Fund, which no longer receives a single euro. Instead, more bilateral relations are being sought out now.

The non-profit Intermón Oxfam highlights another aspect of development aid: "Rather than state aid, what has really dropped is regional and local aid programs," said a spokesperson. For instance, a food program planned for September 1 that would have benefited 18,000 people in the Sahel area of Africa has been axed. Another program to award small plots of land to women in Tanzania has been slashed, as has a third project to train 10,000 people in Ethiopia.

"The damage is not just to the non-profits, but also to the Spain brand, because the country is defaulting on its commitments," adds the Intermón Oxfam spokesperson. Given the situation, NGOs are turning to new forms of fundraising. Intervida and MSF (Doctors Without Borders) are the best off: nearly 100 percent of their money comes from private donors. At the other end of the spectrum, the multilateral agency Unicef has been hard hit.

"If aid fell 50 percent overall, in our case it's 76 percent," says Unicef Spain's aid director Carmen Molina, who disagrees with the criteria being applied by the Foreign Ministry. "The OECD Development Aid Committee advises that at least half of contributions should go to multilateral organizations. Although Spain is the country that has reduced its donor money the most, this is a global trend. We are suffering a lot."

Yet Unicef has not had to cancel any programs yet. "We are trying to soften the blow. We have to optimize [resources] to weather the storm. We are trying to compensate through civil society," says Molina.

Molina adds that even though the budget cuts are justified, things did not have to be this way. "There is poverty in Spain, but it is not comparable with what you see in other countries. Other countries have not made such drastic cuts, or they have even increased their aid despite being in crisis, too."

The workers of Ingeniería Sin Fronteras (Engineering Without Borders) are very familiar with the effects of the budget cuts. Last year, Miquel Carrillo fired himself as coordinator of the non-profit in Catalonia, and now works as a volunteer. Five other employees out of a staff of 12 went the same way, as a result of cuts to official development aid and payment delays.

But it is not just the group's workers who are feeling the crisis. "In Mozambique we left infrastructure projects halfway done," Carrillo says.

ISF was building wells in the district of Funhalouro, in Mozambique, with the aim of serving over 7,500 local residents. But the project has been put on hold after the Catalan Cooperation Agency, which was providing 80 percent of the money, reduced its aid to just a third in 2011. In 2012 it warned ISF that it would no longer be contributing to the project at all, and left 1.3 million euros' worth of back dues, according to Carrillo. "When they stop paying, you have to bow out."