When I was volunteering in Guyana, I became aware of how there were different skill 'holes' in different countries. So the skill hole in Guyana, at that time, was in creative web design, which put their websites at a disadvantage in the global online community. There was also a skill hole around giving support to developing businesses and up-to-date occupational therapy techniques. But where the skill hole is secondary to survival, a country's needs go beyond professional advice to direct aid, to bring those populations up to the level where they can even start to develop skills. If you don't have enough to eat, if you don't survive beyond your fifth birthday, any talk of skill holes is irrelevant.
That is why the UK Government's policy of making available 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid each year, £10.5 billion in 2014-15, is so important. (It is estimated that each person in the UK contributes £137.00 per annum to overseas countries through the tax they pay.) Just as important is Michael Moore's Private Members Bill enshrining that 0.7% in law, which is coming up to its second reading in early September. This has the support of all of the political parties, Conservative, Labour and Liberal, but is unpopular and viewed with suspicion by the majority of the electorate.
Yet there are some very tangible outcomes to the dispersing of this aid. DFID has statistics which show that UK Aid has helped protect 46 million children against preventable diseases (GAVI Alliance); improved the land and property rights of 3.8 million people; supported 5.9 million children (2.8 million of them girls) to go to primary school; prevented 12.9 million children and pregnant women from going hungry; reached 8.7 million people with emergency food assistance, and improved water, sanitation and hygiene conditions for 19.6 million people.* Aid works, and is shown to be working.
The political commitment is there and the achievements are clear. But in a time of austerity, where poorer people are suffering increased deprivation in the UK, why should we be giving so much money to overseas aid and then enshrining that giving in law?
First of all, because we live in a connected world, and it is the right thing to do. Morally it is the right thing to do, and in terms of helping create a more prosperous, and thus safer world it is the right thing to do. Commercially, increasing trade opportunities and creating new supplier bases and consumer markets will benefit us too.
Increasing the predictability of aid will help NGOs and other agencies plan their work over longer periods so the doctors, nurses and teachers involved will be more effective in saving and improving lives. This means money-saving long-term investments can be made, increasing value for money, and enabling positive change to be embedded rather than abandoned because the money runs out.
With longer time-frames, the focus of the conversation will be able to move to quality, to where the money should be put against carefully measured and evaluated outcomes rather than re-hashing the reasons why the 0.7% commitment should be there every year. Michael Moore's bill will maintain, rather than increase the commitment - the percentage is pegged to the performance of the UK economy, so goes up and down just like the economy does.
And it has taken us 40 years to reach this target. The politicians need to be accountable to parliament and the public for making this promise year on year.
To me, the most compelling argument is that we are all connected. We have similar hopes and dreams. We want our children to be happy and do well, we want to be warm and well-fed with a roof over our heads. We all, by and large, want to work and be part of the economy. Terrorism, corruption and ill-conceived projects are all considerations, and no-one I think is saying that the dispersing of aid is always 100% effective in terms of reaching the right people, at the right time and right place. This constantly needs to be kept under review in each spending decision which is made.
But how aid and the eradication of poverty is linked to increased equality and filling-in skill holes urgently needs to be debated in the public forum. In other words, what the end game is. The DFID statistics show that access to financial services was provided to 30.3 million people in 2012-2013, and 33.4 million people now have a say in their community's affairs and are able to hold their authorities to account. These are the stepping stones which are bringing together aid and development so that countries really will be able to join a global economy. If, and when that happens, the prize will be enormous for the citizens of developing countries and for ourselves.
* DFID Annual Report 2012-2013Suggest a correction