Opinion: ‘Our aid contribution remains high ‘

Peterborough MP Paul Bristow writes his regularcolumn for the Peterborough Telegraph...

Saturday, 12th June 2021, 5:00 am
Overseas aid.  (Photo by FANNY MARSOT/AFP via Getty Images)
Overseas aid. (Photo by FANNY MARSOT/AFP via Getty Images)

There has been plenty of noise and posturing about foreign aid. Facts are in danger of being lost, amid a narrow and unedifying debate.

The decision to support jobs and businesses during the pandemic meant unprecedented borrowing. Given this, the Government suspended our target of spending 0.7 per cent of national income on overseas aid.

It’s a temporary measure.

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We will still spend 0.5 per cent this year, which is more than £10 billion. That’s over 2p of Income Tax on each pound that you earn.

Of course, it’s unusual to have a fixed-percentage target at all. Spending by percentage isn’t based on need or effectiveness. But when different countries make agreements, it’s almost the only metric available.

That’s why we have a percentage target for NATO defence spending set in 2006. The UN agreement to spend 0.7 per cent on aid dates goes back further, over half a century, but most countries have never met it.

France hasn’t met the aid target since 1967.

Canada and Japan only managed 0.31 per cent last year, while the US gave just 0.17 per cent. Almost alone, the UK has been paying its share.

Our aid contribution rose to a whopping £15 billion in 2019. Even at 0.5 per cent, we remain in the top five global donors in absolute terms. This is a huge contribution from British taxpayers.

Sadly, you won’t hear that mentioned on the airwaves. Besides the standard virtue-signalling, that’s also because there are vested interests and large-turnover organisations involved.

The debate is dominated by aid charities and NGOs. They should be heard and I’m not in any sense denigrating their work, but it isn’t axiomatic that they get everything right. For example, Oxfam’s difficulties over sex exploitation have revealed complacency and a lack of transparency.

Beyond the groups that increasingly rely on your taxes, some of the programmes and locations for our aid have been questionable. No one doubts the case for disaster relief or medical assistance. Funds for countries with their own space programmes is another matter.

Above all, the debate is too narrow. It reduces problems abroad to a question of the cash spent by Western governments, without any deeper analysis.

Problems around the world might be eased by aid spending, but they can’t be solved by it. UK aid can’t fix what countries can only address for themselves. More often than not, it’s local corruption or entrenched attitudes that underpin poverty.

Trade and the rule of law are the answer. Valuing women and girls’ education is the answer. Spending more on healthcare than weapons is the answer. Ending religious hatred and conflict is the answer. Aid can’t do any of that.

Given some of those complaining now, it’s worth noting that our aid budget was mostly below 0.4 per cent under Labour, who never once reached the target. The UK only got to 0.7 per cent under the Conservatives.

The temporary reduction in our aid spending is just that – temporary. Charity must begin at home. As we get back to normal, the target can be restored.

Note something else too.

The Covid-19 Vaccine Programme has been a success because our Government backed more than one horse, diversifying our supply.

We will soon be able to donate millions of surplus doses around the world.

That isn’t traditional aid spending, but I suspect it will achieve more than aid ever could.