ITS transformative impact comes in many shapes and forms. In Malawi I’ve encountered programmes that help protect children vulnerable to trafficking. In Afghanistan I once came across a small boy and others like him near blind from cataracts, whose lives were made immeasurably better by minor laser operations. In South Sudan I’ve witnessed the powerful effect basic water hygiene education has had in helping eradicate the horror of Guinea-worm infestation.
From Syria to Liberia, Colombia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, time and again I’ve seen the tremendous impact foreign aid and humanitarian assistance can have on the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable people. Most of us who put our hands in our pockets to provide charitable donations or help pay for such government aid through our taxes never get a chance to see such things. If more of us did, it would doubtless reshape the way spending on foreign aid is viewed and perceived.
The whole question of how much the UK spends on foreign aid is an emotive issue at the best of times. That much we were reminded of again this week, when Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates weighed in on the debate. In the eyes of some, Mr Gates committed the cardinal sin of warning Prime Minister Theresa May that should the Conservatives go ahead and abandon the UK’s overseas aid spending pledge then many more lives would be lost in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. Whatever your views on Mr Gates and what he represents, the inescapable fact is that he is absolutely right.
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Yes, I know some people will find the idea of the world’s richest man telling us that we have to continue giving to those in need difficult to swallow, but it doesn’t make him wrong in his assessment. As was illustrated in an interview he gave to the Spectator magazine recently, far from being doom-laden as so many voices are within the humanitarian sector, Mr Gates is usually upbeat about what aid can do. This, he says, is because he too gets a chance to actually see the impact of aid, “uplifting countries, creating stability and preventing pandemics”.
One of the biggest problems with the foreign aid debate is that most people are deprived of any real understanding of what aid is and does. This is in part too because aid provision is a complex business, with many not fully grasping the differences between emergency and development aid or that provided by the charitable sector and that of government. This lack of understanding allows critics of foreign aid spending to muddy the waters even further, focusing as they often do on the small number of instances where government money might have been used unwisely rather than focusing on the vast amount of good most of it does.
Indeed some sections of my own industry seem to have a never-ending fascination with the more lurid stories of how some money has been misspent. This has been fuelled by and in turn helps fuel, some of the more noisome aspects of populist politics lately. I’m talking about those who always blame others for Britain’s problems and see those in need of our help overseas as little more than economic leeches sucking the life’s blood out of the UK economy.
It’s the short-sighted thinking of the charity-begins-at-home brigade, who cannot see that problems within say, the NHS, cannot simply be solved by cutting overseas aid. Much as these finger pointers might wish it, that’s not how economies or politics work. At the moment the UK’s aid budget is one-tenth the NHS budget, and the problems of the NHS are certainly not born because of largesse in foreign aid.
Right now the UK Government has a target to spend 0.7 per cent of the country’s Gross National Income on overseas development aid each year. This is the UN’s target for all developed countries and has been since 1970. While the UK government has been signed up in principle to the target since 1974, it achieved this for the first time only in 2013. Given that 0.7 per cent is still a comparatively paltry amount, it puts in some perspective Britain’s lethargy in meeting even that quota. Likewise it puts into context the misguided arguments of those who say we spend too much.
If I can put this into an even simpler context, aid spending in the UK works out to be £290 per person in the UK between the ages of 16 and 64 per year. This figure is a bit less per household than what we spend on food we never eat and throw away.
Admittedly it’s not always about how much we spend but how it is spent. Aid has to be cost-effective and cost-efficient. Yes, we need to admit when we get things wrong only then can we improve towards the right provision. But aid also has to be flexible, ranging from tents, blankets and medicines of emergency response to the livelihood and infrastructure support that helps keep countries politically stable.
For therein lies another reason why foreign aid provision is important. Perhaps those for whom simple humanitarian need is not enough reason to respond should stop and consider how the UK itself stands to benefit from such a commitment.
In so many places across the world right now political instability is born out of poverty. Extremists have always been quick to exploit fragile and impoverished states that lack basic capacity building, functioning markets and governments. Turning our backs on those in need in such countries or failing to offer alternatives often drives some into the hands of those who would do harm at home while exporting their violence in the shape of terrorism right to our doorstep.
Charity might begin at home, goes the argument of some opposed to foreign aid spending. But terrorism is often spawned abroad and followed through at home.
Capitalism might in great part have been responsible for keeping many developing countries in poverty, and indeed Bill Gates himself is the ultimate capitalist and proud of it.
But it’s precisely because of what he is that he fully understands the need to create stable conditions for countries to become self-sufficient, peaceful, stable and healthy. Mr Gates is right in saying the UK’s influence in the world would be diminished by abandoning its overseas aid spending pledge. He’s right, too, that should that happen even more lives would be lost.