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Seven Pence in Every £10 Is a Small Price to Help the World's Poorest

13/06/2016 08:44 | Updated 13 June 2016
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Today, the seven pence in every £10 of national income that the UK gives to help stop millions of people dying from malaria, reduce hunger around the word and give children the chance to receive a decent education will be debated by MPs. Parliament's scrutiny of UK aid is welcome, and should be encouraged.

What would not be welcome is for that debate to be used by critics as a pretext to undermine the Government's efforts to help the world's poorest people, or the public's pride in our country's world class aid programme.

Critics complain of a "bloated" aid industry. They cite cases where aid has been misspent, or funnelled away through corruption, or where it is simply unnecessary - India and China are popular examples.

Yet over the last 15 years, our world has made unprecedented progress towards ending extreme poverty: more than halving the number of children who die unnecessarily every year, stopping millions of children, women and men dying from preventable diseases and ensuring 34million more girls and boys can go to school.

Those debating the value of our aid budget should have seen what I saw on a recent visit to Ethiopia. A country consistently facing drought, exacerbated this year by the devastating effects of El Nino, that has been written off by some as a case of history repeating itself. Nothing has changed, they say, since the 1984 famine.

Yet I witnessed many signs of how far the country has come in the last thirty years. Poverty has fallen, the government is better prepared and water supply has improved in rural areas - progress in which aid has played a large part. The country's struggle is far from over and no one could claim that all is right in Ethiopia - today's crisis could still become a catastrophe. But Ethiopia would be facing a far worse situation without the help of aid.

That is not to pretend that everything in the aid garden is rosy - there are many challenges in working to eradicate extreme poverty. It is difficult to spend money perfectly in countries racked by war and natural disasters, where governments are not accountable to their citizens, and which often lack basic infrastructure. In fragile countries such as Nigeria, or Pakistan, or Somalia, there is always going to be an element of risk. These are risks we should be willing to take, if we hope to tackle the causes of poverty.

But there is also a need to bust popular myths which pepper many conversations on aid, such as money being wasted on newly rich countries with strong economies. The fact is that the Department for International Development (DfID) announced at the end of 2015 that they will stop providing aid to India. The UK stopped giving aid to China long ago. Yet there are still more poor people in India and China than in the whole of Africa and we should not walk away from them.

The public, commentators and politicians are right to highlight the continued challenges around the effective use of aid, and to demand the highest standards of monitoring and review. We should, however, be encouraged by the fact that DfID has been leading efforts on aid transparency, both within the UK government and globally. As Chair of the British Overseas Aid Group (BOAG), Oxfam, along with members Action Aid, CAFOD, Christian Aid and Save the Children, are firmly behind this agenda and are supporting DfID's efforts to ensure that our aid is transparent to everyone - especially both the people it helps and British taxpayers.

All of us working to tackle poverty, alongside governments and other public and private bodies, are striving to improve how we support the world's poorest people, at a time when there have never been more people forced from their homes worldwide, and the effects of climate change are wreaking havoc in countries across the globe.

For example, at the recent World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Oxfam and many others committed to increasing our work with local partners, to bring about a more 'grassroots' approach to aid which will be cost effective, efficient, support local ownership and make best use of local knowledge.

When MPs debate the UK's aid target today, I hope we are presented with a full picture of the pros and cons of aid spending. I'm proud that Britain hasn't turned its back on the world's poorest - the fact that the rest of the world has not yet followed suit is a reason to carry on, not retrace our steps. We can and must continue to do better, but there should be no doubt that British aid is transforming the lives of millions of the most vulnerable people on the planet.

Image copyright Oxfam

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