Time to stand up for foreign aid

There is a moral duty to provide it—and it grants Britain influence on the global stage

January 11, 2017
©Stefan Wermuth/PA Wire/PA Images
©Stefan Wermuth/PA Wire/PA Images

It seems that those on the right of British politics have set their sights on a new target: the UK's foreign aid budget. Not content with hauling Britain out of the EU and plunging the country into political and economic chaos, next on their list is the £12bn that is distributed to the most deprived and impoverished nations on the planet.

It is enshrined in UK law that we commit 0.7 per cent of our GDP to the foreign aid budget and despite vehement calls to the contrary, our moral duty demands that we should not falter on this.

Sensationalist, headline-grabbing stories of waste and corruption have become an ever increasing staple of British newspapers over recent months. No policy, project or programme designed to improve the lives of destitute and marginalised people around the world is exempt from criticism.

Most recently, a story was widely published and circulated of a £5m figure—0.04 per cent of the UK's foreign aid budget—delivered to Ethiopian “Spice Girls” group, Yegna. Despite the oversimplified and distorted reporting of the story, the money supplied to the group was part of a much wider campaign—called Girl Effect—that aims to tackle gender-based violence in the country.

The scheme uses storylines and music to tackle violence against women, reduce the proportion of girls who marry or give birth before the age of 18, increase the proportion of girls who complete primary school and go to secondary school and increase the number of girls with control over economic assets. This is just one example of many which constitutes an all-out-attack on foreign aid.

The aid the UK gives does not constitute a supply of money ad infinitum; there are targets to be met once countries have been given the social and economic leg-up necessary. For example, in Uganda, the plan is to end support for a vaccination programme there by 2020, when it is hoped the country will be wealthier and in a better position to fund this service itself.

Stories of government corruption are troubling and present a significant challenge for the delivery of aid to those who need it most. Ultimately, it is not our relationship with these governments that matters, but rather with the people who benefit from the aid we deliver.

It is beneficial to shift the focus away from aid as purely a financial pledge and instead emphasise the fact it is a broader soft power commitment, which provides the UK with a wider scope of influence. This allows Britain to achieve its development objectives through attraction and co-option, rather than coercion.

We must look at the UK's global engagement in tackling international issues such as poverty, inequality and tax avoidance and evasion. When it comes to dealing with these last two seemingly intractable issues, foreign aid can be an incredibly valuable tool. We are currently in the absurd situation where wealthy and corrupt politicians and businessmen—from countries that receive aid from the UK government—flout international tax laws and are able to purchase property in the UK with the wealth they have amassed.

Using foreign aid to open up a dialogue and bilaterally discuss solutions to these problems is a good way to start. International cooperation will provide a much-needed boost to tax revenue which will alleviate the dichotomised tone of the foreign versus domestic aid debate. With decisive steps taken, care for those abroad and care for those at home need no longer be mutually exclusive.

A piece of government legislation currently making its way through parliament is sure to have a significant impact on the UK's aid obligations. The Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) Bill seeks to raise the government cap on the level of funding administered through the CDC (a private equity firm owned by DfID) from £1.5bn to £6bn.

Any measures that aim to improve the quality of life of those less fortunate than ourselves is always welcome. However, the right safeguards must be in place in order for that to be achieved. My job as shadow DfID Secretary is to ensure that some of the previous excesses and failures of the Commonwealth Development Corporation are not repeated. These include past excessive executive pay, the CDC’s failure to focus sufficiently on poverty-reduction, its reduced levels of investment in agriculture and infrastructure, and its routeing of investments through tax havens.

With the turmoil and shockwaves still being felt following Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, and the emergence of right-wing populism in Europe, we must remain resolute and staunchly defend foreign aid and the vital work it performs. This is particularly pertinent as the UK seeks to expand and increase its scope for influence on the global stage.