THE BLOG

Britain Before Burundi

13/05/2013 15:45 BST | Updated 11/07/2013 10:12 BST

In an ideal world, we would be able to alleviate the all humans from poverty. The sad truth is however, that we, as individuals and nation states, have limited resources. Who then do we share these resources with?

If we look at the figures on poverty in countries around the world, those like Burundi - one of the poorest countries in the world - seem the most needy. Ideally, some would argue, we should prioritise allocating our resources toward these people. But does foreign aid really improve conditions for the poorest in the world? Do we not have a responsibility to look after those closest to us first?

On the 2nd of May 2013, the Oxford Union voted that we should indeed help the Burundians before the British. But such a conclusion is naïve and idealistic.

As the Frederik Erixon and James Delingpole told us, foreign aid is often wasteful and ineffectual. Here I principally speak of Government foreign aid: it is an unfortunate truth that such aid has failed us miserably. We are encouraged by organisations such as the United Nations encourage us to use the foreign aid budget of a government as a measure of its compassion, and to senselessly utilise arbitrary targets such as .7% of GDP. Foreign aid has formally been in existence since the Second World War, yet we only need to look at the countries we have injected money into to see that there has been little improvement despite the vast sums of money spent.

This is primarily because foreign aid, especially government-to-government aid, discourages reform. We have a tendency to provide aid to the wrong governments. Our conscience suggests that we should first aid the poorest countries, but in doing so we are regularly propping up the countries with the worst governments. Global economic reform is not possible if we supporting incompetent regimes to produce inefficient policies. Take Pakistan - the largest recipient of British foreign aid. Last year in Pakistan, 54% of all federal public spending was spent on the armed forces and debt servicing. This is in comparison to education, which received just under 2%. By providing foreign aid to governments like Pakistan - as well as to significantly worse oppressive and wasteful regimes - prevents market mechanisms and a need to survive from weeding out the inefficiencies and promoting reform.

It is trading with these countries, not propping them up which will best help their citizens. It is the ability to fail and subsequently find comparative economic advantages through operating on an international platform of free trade that will best help the citizens of a country - not supporting inefficiencies and incompetence.

So foreign aid is inefficient. Nonetheless, as Toby Ord pointed out, perhaps even despite these inefficiencies, if just 25% of our money gets to the needy people we have done something beneficial. But such an argument is misguided. On a governmental level, a government primarily has a responsibility to its own people. It is in turn the role of foreign governments to help their own respective people. By helping our own people first, we put ourselves in a viable position to help other people. By way of analogy: on an aeroplane, if oxygen masks appear in an emergency, adults are asked to put their mask on first before helping children and other dependants. We must make sure we sufficiently aid ourselves before we aid others, and we cannot underestimate the importance of the nation state to facilitate this.

Indeed, David Goodheart was right to emphasise that we have tendencies to help those who are closest to us - we are moral particularlists by nature. It seems right to utilise these tendencies to build a strong and unified state.

But, of course, this doesn't mean we give nothing to those in poor countries - charity is important, emergency aid is important, but in the long term our focus should be on those who are near to us and share identity and belonging to a country. The point in contention is not whether we should or should not help poor nations such as Burundi, but whether we should help Britain before Burundi. Nationalism can be dangerous, but it can also act as a glue to hold people together. And, if this isn't enough, helping someone personally, which can be done most easily in our own community can provide us with meaning and even improve our character. This not something we can gain simply by sending off a cheque.

Yes, we should support those in need abroad, but we should not take part in arbitrary and ineffective foreign aid and instead see the benefit of prioritising our fellow nationals first - charity begins at home.