There are few things that make me more angry than waste, especially when I see waste of resources generously donated to assist those struggling to live with the daily challenge of extreme poverty. But lazy thinking by people who should know better comes close.
Earlier this week, Lord Ashcroft wrote an open letter to the new Secretary of State for International Development, Justine Greening MP, stating that ‘overseas aid doesn’t work and we can’t afford it.’ All recent evidence shows that the first of these claims is untrue, and while a view on the justice case for the second may come down to the morals and values of each individual, it is possible to make a strong case for aid in terms of investment and self-interest too.
Corrupt individuals, tax dodgers, self-interested politicians and inefficient government departments exist in the developing world – but they exist in the rich developed world too. Their existence demands accountability and transparency, but it does not justify ‘turning off the taps’ and sending millions to their death from conflict, hunger and treatable diseases. Any flaws uncovered in the current spending should spur a rallying cry to the government to try harder, and to ensure that UK aid achieves the best value for money and the greatest impact possible.
The current economic climate in Britain – as around the world – is undeniably tough, with dramatic cuts in domestic spending. This divides opinion but, to be fair, the Government was clear in the 2010 election that they would cut the deficit. However, they also have a mandate on aid. The promise to increase overseas development assistance to 0.7% of GNI by 2013, and to enshrine this target in law, featured in the manifestos of the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour. It was repeated in the coalition agreement and has been confirmed at a number of international summits. So strong is the belief that this is the right thing to do, that it now transcends party politics. As a result, there exists an increased accountability to parliament and the UK public to spend this money effectively, with a greater push for transparency.
For me, given our history and the human need that exists, the most compelling argument for investing in overseas aid is the reality of the difference that this money makes.
UK aid currently costs about 40p per person, per week. In return each year, that aid lifts 3 million people permanently out of poverty. It sends millions of children to school and immunises them from killer diseases. It has helped transform life chances across the globe with safe water. Aid globally in the past decade has meant 46.5 million more children start school in Africa, and over 6 million now receive HIV/AIDS treatment. UNICEF reported earlier this month that the number of children dying under 5 years of age has halved since 1990 – 14000 fewer every day globally. Report after report by legitimate, dependable organisations document the transformation that has been taking place as the rich world addresses its obligations to the rest.
But there is a self-interest case too. Simply put, UK aid benefits Britain’s security, economy and international standing. Aid channelled into fragile states can give people a stake in a better future, helping to tackle problems upstream and creating stability and opportunity. Under such circumstances, people are less inclined to turn to violence and terrorism, and the global burden of the cost of conflict – in cash and in death – will be greatly reduced.
UK aid encourages economic development in emerging economies, allowing us to enter new markets and to diversify our trading partners. According to ONE, for every pound we invest in aid to Africa, we already gain almost two pounds back through trade. Increased trade creates UK jobs, as well as jobs in poor countries. And UK aid has been vital to develop tax collection systems in places like Rwanda who want to be aid-free as soon as possible.
Finally, Britain’s role as a global leader in development strengthens our influence in the international arena. In 2013, Britain will become the first G20 country to achieve the 0.7% target on aid, providing us with an invaluable opportunity to exert pressure on other countries to keep their promise on global poverty reduction. Our soft power globally is already among the most influential – reneging on promises made would hurt that immensely.
Of course the current system is not perfect and there is room for improvement. I backed the Conservative decision to establish the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, as party politics come second in this debate. More can be done to foster capacity-building within recipient governments to eventually end aid dependency, and the battle to ensure that money reaches those for whom it was intended continues to be an uphill one. The fact that challenges remain, however, should not be a signal for the UK to simply give up. We’re starting to make real progress changing lives and reducing aid dependency, so now is the time to increase the pace and step up our efforts. After decades at the helm of the international development agenda, to walk away would be a disservice to those we have promised to help, and to our national character.