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It Is Right to Question Foreign Aid, But We Must Remember the Vital Causes It Serves

26/05/2016 16:18 | Updated 26 May 2016

On 13th June, the UK Parliament will debate the proposition that the government's approach to foreign aid is flawed. This is based on a petition initiated by the Mail on Sunday and signed by over 230,000 people, and will no doubt be guided by the latest report that the Government is spending nearly twice as much on aid as any other G7 nation.

The petition states that we should provide money for only "truly deserving causes" as the current approach of handing over 0.7% of national income on aid "fuels waste by focusing on targets, not outcomes".

Certainly, the petition reiterates the perfectly rational idea that creating a budget before agreeing a task is back-to-front, and risks creating perverse incentives due to the need to spend a certain amount of money annually. Building a budget based on a set of agreed goals and tasks would be a better approach. I've worked for overseas charities since 1985, from Care International to International Alert, but I completely respect the point of view of those who question aid, and welcome the attention this petition brings. It is right to question whether the 0.7% target undermines effective policies and actions. It is a more or less arbitrary figure based on a calculation made at least four decades ago.

But using the expressions hand over, regardless of need, and truly deserving causes on a case by case basis, the petition does its own argument a disservice. It assumes the government simply "hands over" the money, but in fact the funds are programmed for specific purposes. It also implies that a wholesale commitment to 0.7% (£12billion this year) means the volume of aid is too great, compared with the need.

Would that it were so. If there are roughly 700million people living below the poverty line today, as the World Bank estimates, the UK's aid budget works out at only £17 per person. And that only includes those living on less than $1.9 per day - hardly a king's ransom. So without getting into the complex economic jargon which is used to explain aid flows, and while accepting that the UK does not and should not try to reach every poor person on the planet, it is quite easy to see that 0.7% is completely inadequate when set against the level of need.

The petition rightly calls for aid to be targeted towards deserving causes. Fortunately, the UK Aid strategy clearly sets out the four such causes:

• Strengthening global peace, security and governance;
• Strengthen resilience and response to crises;
• Promoting global prosperity;
• Tackling extreme poverty and helping the world's most vulnerable.

As sceptical as one may be about aid, it would be hard to argue that these are not all truly deserving causes. Estimates from the World Bank and the OECD are that between 1.3 bn and 1.5 bn people live in countries affected by violent conflict, so peace, security and improved governance are very appropriate goals.

The World Humanitarian Summit this week reminded us that the numbers and people affected by increasingly severe humanitarian crises are growing annually: hence strengthening resilience and providing succour at times of crisis must also be priorities. And promoting sustainable economic prosperity and tackling poverty are surely essential goals in any civilised view of the world. Meanwhile not only are all four causes highly deserving of the UK's attention, but addressing them benefits the UK too: the first three quite directly, and the fourth indirectly.

The petition is also right that even within these overall categories, allocations should be made on a case by case basis. From my experience of working in overseas charities for more than 30 years, I can attest that, although no donor organisation or NGO is perfect, UK aid money is already allocated based on an assessment of whether or not it will make a specific difference.

Even when the funds are provided to other organisations - UN agencies, NGOs, etc. - rather than being programmed by DFID directly, the intermediaries are required to spend them (and report) based on an assessment of whether they make a difference.

On the question of proportionality, the petition has a point: why should we spend 0.7% if other rich nations don't? But let's be realistic: the 0.7% commitment is already enshrined in law, and there is no parliamentary time available to overturn the law, even if that were the desirable outcome. It would take many months of valuable parliamentary time, and would be unlikely to succeed anyway, given the views of a majority of MPs including party leaders and their whips.

So that debate should instead be about how to encourage other wealthy nations to match our commitment. But most importantly I'd suggest the main focus of debate should be how to ensure that UK aid is spent most effectively in pursuit of the four goals listed above, so that taxpayers can have confidence that their money is well spent.

None of the four aid goals will be easy to achieve: if they were, we would have achieved them long ago.

And all public policy is contestable - one has only to look at the UK's education, justice, health or energy sectors to see that. That's why we have a parliament and a proactive civil society and media. Nor do any "policy solutions" seem to last long. A decade ago, Finland's education sector was the envy of the world, and Whitehall was examining Finnish policies for clues as to what we should do here. Now, Finland - with the same policies in place - has slid down the international education league tables and is itself looking for new solutions.

If international aid policy is not unique in being imperfect, it is perhaps unique in being multi-dimensional, operating as it does in diverse and changing local contexts, and covering a wide range of needs and sectors. This means all the more need for a healthy and regular debate about what works best.

My suggestion is therefore that parliamentary debate should focus on how to ensure that our aid is spent as effectively as possible, on what kinds of programmes, and how parliamentarians can hold the government and its partners to account for their contribution to the goals which have been set: peace, resilience, meeting humanitarian needs, building shared prosperity and reducing poverty.

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