13 June 2016

We spend 99.3 percent of our money on ourselves


CapX contributor Tim Montgomerie recently tweeted a picture of the Telegraph splash about Britain topping the global aid budget league table and asked if it made his followers proud of the country or if they thought it was an unaffordable waste.

Based on his digital straw poll, Britain’s help for the world’s poor is a source of pride for people in the world’s fifth largest economy.

The aid budget has come in for a lot of flak recently with a petition from the Mail on Sunday successfully triggering a parliamentary debate about it later today. Ukip’s Nigel Farage has long waged a war against this sliver of the public purse which is spent abroad, claiming that its eradication will somehow magically fix all manner of domestic ills. But with 99.3% of the pot available for exactly that, raiding the portion we set aside for the world’s poor seems rather Scrooge-like.

Conservative MP and development Minister Des Swayne has said that he doesn’t know anyone who spends 99.3% of their money on themselves, and that he is not sure he would want to.

Aid is an imperfect solution to global suffering. Some projects work better than others, aid agencies sometimes make mistakes, politicians interfere, and yes, sometimes money goes where it shouldn’t. But under Justine Greening’s leadership the UK aid budget has become a rigorous and effective means of leveraging sustainable development around the globe.  The UK’s Department for International Development is probably the most scrutinised department in Whitehall, hauled up by numerous parliamentary committees, an independent impact assessor, various international bodies, not to mention the media. Fortunately DFID ranks as one of the most transparent and accountable donors in the world, placing fourth in the 2016 Aid Transparency Index. Few global citizens better know where their aid money goes than the British.

Despite legitimate criticisms of how the aid budget could be improved, detractors seem unable to stop themselves stumbling into inaccurate and exaggerated attacks.  The exasperated fact-checkers at DFID have resorted to a point-by-point rebuttal of these errors. Reports that UK aid money is spent on Palestinian presidential palaces and Somalian radio programmes telling people how to reach Britain, have been shown to be false. Good newspaper copy it may be but factual it is not.

The debate may be a symptom of the underlying global trend of outward-looking internationalists or inward-looking populists. As Ed West put it in the Spectator: “The main political divide of the 21st century is no longer between socialism and capitalism, or even liberalism and conservatism, but internationalism and localism.”

This sentiment was channelled by eight senior British military leaders in a letter to the Observer, who warned that Britain would be foolish to retreat from the global arena:

“If Britain is to punch its weight on the international stage, it is essential both to fund defence properly and to maintain our internationally respected pledge to spend 0.7% of national income on aid to help the world’s poorest people. The combination of hard and soft power is one the UK’s greatest strategic assets.”

The trick with aid is to use it in such a way that it helps people to not need it anymore. Not only has UK aid helped stop six million people dying from malaria since 2000, it has helped developing countries stand on their own two feet by strengthening their health, education and infrastructure.  One way to make it better would be to get more of it directly to local organisations working on the ground, run by people who best know the problems they are working to solve, and accountable to the people they are helping.

Britain has a proud history of helping those in need, and our aid is some of the best in the world.  Rather than beating ourselves up about it, Brits should be proud of this demonstration of our forward looking, international perspective.

Joe Ware is a writer at Christian Aid.