Ahead of the Parliamentary debate on 13th June, triggered by a Mail petition, I have been re-reading the cacophony of attacks on aid in the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday in recent months. I have been searching for something I can agree with. There isn’t much, but here are two examples.
In their eight point Foreign Aid Manifesto, the last point is to “encourage a tougher stance on corruption, waste and human rights abuses”. A great deal of their attack is based on the idea that some UK aid is wasted or badly spent supporting “despots” and “terrorists” and “tax havens”. Of course no-one would want even a penny of our aid to encourage such bad things. Unfortunately they are not asking for the aid to be better spent, but for less to be spent. This would mean punishing the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet because perhaps a tiny proportion of the aid is not spent as wisely as we would like. Better by far, as they suggest, to crack down on corruption and waste, than to cut the aid budget. Let’s get the “waste” argument out of the way – it is not an argument for less aid, but for better aid. I could certainly argue with some of their examples, but these are not really the point. The International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015, which sets the UK’s 0.7% aid target, also calls on the Government to “to make provision for independent verification that ODA is spent efficiently and effectively” so that is already a legal requirement of the very Act that the Mail seems to object to so vehemently. The UK Department for International Development (DFID) is already recognised as one of the world’s most transparent aid organisations so we are moving in the right direction.
I also agree with the statement in the Mail on Sunday comment piece from 27th March that “we are an instinctively generous and outward-looking people, filling the buckets of charity collectors when disaster strikes in distant lands. We give when it is needed [my emphasis]”. According to the Charities Aid Foundation, 20% of all donors to charity in the UK in 2014 gave to overseas causes, making it a more popular choice than disability, homelessness, health, environment and the elderly (all of which are thoroughly deserving as well). In my long experience working for international development and human rights, I have never found the wonderful British people to exhibit so-called “compassion fatigue” – their compassion does not fail as long as the need is evident, and as long as it is clear that their contributions can make a difference.
I know the needs are real, and I know that our aid can and does help those in greatest need – I have met many of them myself!
There are many strong arguments for aid, including the case for our own self-interest (an increasingly unequal, fragile world in which the poor see few opportunities and the young can’t find livelihoods is certainly not good for our own security or prosperity). But I believe the reason so many people support international development with their own hard earned cash is out of a sense of solidarity and common humanity. Quite simply, they feel unable to permit the evident suffering of poverty, exclusion and discrimination when they know they can do something to change it. Our sense of empathy, justice and common humanity doesn’t stop at the English Channel, or even at the Mediterranean. Increasingly, we see how the world is connected. The plight of those far away is now brought close through the wonders of new communications technology. We cannot close our eyes and pretend we are or can be isolated from what happens elsewhere on our small planet.
I believe the same motivation lies behind the broad UK political consensus in favour of our aid budget. I for one am proud to be a citizen of a country which shows such collective compassion through our official aid budget alongside the individual generosity shown by so many. As the Mail says “we give when it is needed” – and so we should!
So we are left, after all this agreement, with the key central question: how much is “needed”. How much is the right amount? Is it 0.7% of our Gross National Income or something else? The Mail’s petition and campaign, despite some of its rhetoric, is not explicitly against aid, it is apparently primarily against the 0.7% target, now enshrined in UK law. Indeed the argument is that the “fixed” amount of 0.7% of GNI is wrong and we should instead “provide money only for truly deserving causes”. So how much would “truly deserving causes” cost as a share of our GNI? The answer is a lot more than 0.7%!
I can list many “truly deserving causes” that remain seriously underfunded today, so we are clearly not spending enough. The latest UN Global Humanitarian Assistance Report, for example, shows a 45% funding shortfall – the largest ever. The current El Nino-related food crisis in Africa alone faces a current funding gap of more than £1.5 billion. Last year the world agreed on a new set of Global Goals (the Sustainable Development Goals). These are universal goals but behind them lies the principle of “leave no-one behind”. The poorest and most excluded must be included, and we all have a duty to ensure that these goals are achieved for everyone, wherever they live. The UN Conference on Trade and Development says the SDGs face an annual funding gap of about $2.5 trillion. Of course most of that will come from national budgets, private investment, remittances and other sources, but the aid contribution will be the part that can ensure that no-one is left behind. Aid works, more aid will work better.
Of course other countries could and should do more, but if we want those deserving causes to be supported, we can not ourselves do less. Indeed, by setting a positive example, we are in a strong position to use our influence in the world to encourage others also to meet the 0.7% target, as they have committed, but so far largely failed, to do.
0.7 is not enough. And it was never meant to be enough. It was set in 1970 as a minimum objective. Our Government has decided to budget for exactly that amount, but the 1970 UN Resolution set the target as a minimum to be reached by the mid ‘70s (we are 40 years late!) And neither is it an “arbitrary” figure. It was based on the work of Nobel Prize winning economist Jan Tinbergen, and endorsed by the prestigious Pearson Commission, after detailed economic calculations. But since then, we have built up a deficit by failing to meet the target, we have created additional needs by our failure to address climate change early enough and we have heightened our ambitions by adopting the Sustainable Development Goals.
A “fixed” budget of 0.7 is indeed difficult to manage and is not what was intended when the target was set, nor is it sufficient. So let’s make sure it is what it was always intended to be – a minimum. Let us aspire as an international community to give even more than we do and as the UK to work hard internationally to bring other rich countries on board so that, by 2030, we really can live in a world where the new Global Goals are met and no-one is left behind. It will help us too, but most importantly it is the right thing to do. Our aid saves lives, provides vital water, food and medicine for the most vulnerable, and supports good governance, fights corruption and stands up for human rights. Let’s do it better by all means – there is always scope for improvement – but less will definitely not be better.
In a world that spent $1.6 trillion on military spending in 2015, surely as the 6th richest country we can afford to spend a little more than 1% of that amount on helping the one in eight people in the world still living in poverty. Apparently, we spend more every year on soft drinks than on our aid programme. To quote the Queen’s speech “we have distributed 47 million bed nets and contributed to malaria deaths falling by 60% over the last 15 years”. And all this for just 1.6 pence in every £1 the government spends.
In the debate on Monday, I look forward to hearing as many parliamentarians as possible speaking out proudly for 0.7. Please tell your MP now that you are #ProudOfAid and expect them to speak out in favour of our international aid commitment. We cannot allow the distortions and mean-spiritedness of the campaign against 0.7 to divert us from the cause of our common humanity – we are better than that and even the Mail knows it.
If you want to get active on this issue there are lots of great resources at https://www.bond.org.uk/aid