After the Prime Minister’s Africa trip last week, there was a slew of weekend articles questioning the existence of aid. We always need to address these arguments robustly when they arise, but we must also understand what is behind them.
In the Sun, their columnist called for aid to be cut in order to fund elderly care in the UK, although she also found other things that should be cut including selling art works, stopping mayoral cars and HS2. In the Express, Nick Ferrari was apoplectic about the £4 billion announced by Theresa May, missing the point that it seems to be business investments through the Commonwealth Development Corporation which collects returns on these investments back into the UK budget. Last month, a former army chief, Lord Dannatt, wanted money out of the aid budget to invest in the UK army. Even in the Observer, Kenan Malik questioned the premise of aid although his examples were the United States’ tied aid and the EU’s anti-migration conditions rather than the much-better policies of the UK’s Department for International Development.
Lord Dannatt’s proposed 20% cut in aid would have a massive impact globally and undermine many of the gains that UK aid has contributed to, including falls in child mortality, preventing the apocalyptic scenarios that HIV might have caused and increases in education access that will help countries grow. A 20% cut would mean, in a single year, 200,000 fewer people supported in humanitarian emergencies, 2.5 million children not getting immunised and 2.7 million fewer people with access to clean water and sanitation.
Aid sceptics have always claimed that aid money would be better spent at home. As someone once pointed out, these demands would have more weight if the people who attack aid had a great track record of calling for increased spending on public services. Actually, the aid budget is relatively small compared to UK’s public services spending.
But we should welcome their acceptance of an important principle: that those with more money should contribute into a pot that funds universal services based on need and not on contribution. The question is then how big is the world to which this applies? Most British people strongly support the principle that richer people and richer parts of the country should be taxed to contribute more to the Treasury and that poorer people and poorer parts of our country should benefit more. One of the reasons for the Brexit vote, arguably, is that people did not feel that the economic success of London and the South-East was shared fairly with other parts of England.
Logically, this principle also means that richer countries should contribute more to the needs of the poorest countries. Britain has always been a global nation, although not always with the best consequences. It is in Britain’s interests to have reduced poverty and inequality sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. It is in our national interests to have less global conflict and instability.
We clearly need to make better arguments for aid. Aid is best when it helps long-term, lasting changes in recipient countries. This is why we are arguing that aid should support governments of poorer countries to improve their collection of tax and organisation of their public services and grow their economies – one of Theresa May’s key messages last week.
But, of course, logic is not always behind people’s feelings and opinions. So we also need to engage with hearts and minds . This may be through the human stories that NGOs like Save the Children excel at. But it must also be through an emotional commitment to common responsibility, solidarity and seeing ourselves as part of the world, not just our own country.