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Foreign Aid – The Understated Achievement

Politicians aren’t typically shy of mentioning their achievements, particularly in the build up to an election. Therefore, it’s pretty peculiar that in the build up to the general election next month, there has been little reference to the UK finally achieving it’s 0.7% of gross national income commitment to foreign aid.

Unfortunately, it seems like this is quite an embarrassing success. One which has been kept on the down low, presumably in the fear that UKIP will seize upon this as an example of reckless spending which doesn’t benefit the British people.

In the ongoing election campaigns, UKIP have been the most vocal about their policies relating to foreign aid. UKIP would seek to significantly reduce foreign aid and ensure that all aid work carried out is contracted to British companies.

Ironically, contracting out aid work to British companies would be likely to increase the requirements for foreign aid in the long term. See, the majority of aid spending in developing countries seeks to increase the capacity of the local labour force, to equip developing countries for long-term development. By handing these contracts to British companies, there is relatively little skill sharing and developing countries becoming dependent on skilled labour from other countries.

In contrast to UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and some members of the Labour party have expressed commitment to diverting 0.7% of British gross national income to foreign aid. The Conservatives have tried to talk about foreign aid as little as possible; presumably as it’s caused quite a division within the party and they’re at the biggest risk of losing votes to UKIP.

UK Foreign Aid Too High

I accept that when I defend foreign aid, I’m probably rather biased. I’ve also learned over the past couple of years that when I defend foreign aid, I’m also increasingly in a minority. However, I really struggle to understand the perception of people who feel that foreign aid is a waste of money.

The two main arguments against foreign aid presented by UKIP seem to be that UK government spending should help British people and that foreign aid doesn’t really work. I’m all for cynicism surrounding spending on foreign aid, as I am with any government spending given the need to ensure that all government spending is responsible and efficient. However, it’s becoming a little concerning to read the same criticisms, which are often unjust.

UK Government Spending Should Help British People

Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that government spending on International Development is somewhere around about 2-2.5% of total government spending.[1] I recently read an interesting statistic from America, in which those questioned estimated that 25% of spending was directed towards foreign aid.[2] If Britain is comparable to America in this sense, perhaps some of the resentment towards foreign aid is due to the perception that spending on foreign aid is greater than it actually is. Indeed, in the same study in America, individuals thought that 10% of spending being diverted to foreign aid would be reasonable, when in fact the real figure was around 1%.[3] This suggests that people value foreign aid, as long as it isn’t to the detriment of domestic spending.

US Foreign Aid Perceptions

Secondly, who’s to say that foreign aid doesn’t help Britain? The development of other countries can quite easily lead to benefits in the UK. Whether this is due to investment opportunities overseas, access to cheaper and better quality imports or innovation, which is mutually beneficial. Not everything has to happen within British borders to be beneficial to British people… If a scientist in a developing country finds a cure for a disease, it benefits British people, so why not help to open doors in other countries so that they can work towards human advancement alongside the UK?

Related to this, development helps to tackle issues being faced in Britain, such as terrorism. It’s far more difficult for terrorist organisations to recruit in an area where people are able to access education and have good opportunities.

Foreign Aid Doesn’t Work

Since beginning to work in international development, I have seen many instances of foreign aid which doesn’t work and some that even makes issues worse. However, I have seen far more cases of foreign aid doing a great deal of good.

Some justifications as to why people have the perception that foreign aid doesn’t work are reasons such as; aid increases dependency of beneficiaries, aid is unsustainable in the long term and the funds end up in the hands of corrupt governments.

I’m not going to argue that any of these justifications are never true, as they are symptoms of poorly coordinated foreign aid. However, having spent many long days on applications to receive funding from the UK Government, it’s difficult to see how any ill conceived proposals could slip through the net. In order to receive funding, a project proposal needs to be absolutely spot on.

The arguments above are reasons as to why you should look into which charities you support, to ensure that you only support those which are coordinating their projects responsibly. However, in terms of government spending on foreign aid, you can be fairly certain that funds are being spent in a responsible manner.

Below is some data which has been extracted from DFID’s Annual Report. The sheer number of people who have been reached by programmes funded by UK taxpayers goes a great way towards dispelling the idea that foreign aid doesn’t work.

DFID Achievements

It is positive for the sector that standards are routinely questioned. The only way to ensure that funds earmarked for aid are spent effectively is for them to be opened up to the scrutiny of the public.

Whilst the threat of UKIP to slash foreign aid seems to be founded on misplaced arguments, the fact remains that UKIP are reflecting the opinion of a significant proportion of the population.

The population is holding such an opinion at a time when government spending on foreign aid is, by and large, administered effectively. This suggests that not only does the foreign aid sector have to ensure aid is administered effectively, but we also need to be communicate successes and failures effectively to ensure that the general public and the politicians representing them are confident in the ability of the sector.

[1] Endless government spending statistics can be found here, but after a few calculations it seemed reasonable to conclude that International Development spending is somewhere around about the 2-2.5% mark.

Featured Image from The Daily Telegraph.

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