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In Defence of Foreign Aid

08/04/2016 15:44 | Updated 08 April 2016

A newspaper is like a puzzle. Journalists write material that fits the exact requirement of particular pages - news, sports, health, arts, business. Like every puzzle, the structure of a newspaper is clear and logical when you understand it. Newspapers are predictable; readers know they can turn to the back page for sport and page three of some publications for a topless teenager.

When a newspaper has a great story they will break their own format and spread the news over many pages. This is rare but it happened twice in the last week: the Guardian's Monday the 4th of April edition dedicated their first 7 pages to the "Panama Papers" - a story which they broke in the UK and is having a global impact.

A day earlier, on Sunday the 3rd of April, the Mail on Sunday did something similar. They dedicated 11 pages, including the front page, to a scandal of their own making about Britain's "£12 billion foreign aid madness."

My Declaration of Interest

Before criticising this material I need to declare my interests. I used to work in the aid sector; In 1991, I set up Scottish European Aid, a humanitarian aid agency for Bosnia and Romania which later got incorporated into a big American NGO called Mercy Corps. I later worked for DFID - the UK Government's Department for International Development, the main target of the Mail on Sunday's campaign - in Romania and Russia. Currently I'm not working for any of them.

My view about the Mail on Sunday's campaign is that it makes some good points but is fundamentally wrong. If you want to criticise a government department that spends over £12 billion a year, it's easy to find some dubious sounding projects.

The real question is whether the British Government was right to make it a legal obligation to spend 0.7% of our Gross National Income on foreign aid. The Mail on Sunday says that this is "madness" and they rounded up a bevy of disgruntled MPs to back them up and got 150,000 readers to sign a petition.

Maybe the 0.7% target is unreasonable and needs further debate. The problem is that the Mail supports this demand with a series of manipulative statements insinuating that DFID's aid money is being squandered. But is it? In all my years of working abroad on aid projects, DFID was the only donor I came across that wasn't bureaucratic. They're particularly good in a crisis, were instrumental in stopping the spread of Ebola in West Africa and are unusually flexible among cumbersome government donors.

Journalism or Propaganda?

Rather than show a proven example of corrupt practices, the Mail on Sunday cherry picks certain projects and presents them out of context. The Mail obviously have a problem with foreign aid but it's not clear why. Is this journalism or propaganda? Their approach is dangerous as it gives people the false idea that their taxes are being wasted abroad while poverty at home gets ignored. It will just contribute to popular anger and cynicism. In my view this is one of the few government departments that gets it right.

The web version of the story includes a photo of a mansion which, they claim, is an "£8 million palace built by Palestine, which has received £72million of foreign aid." Similar stories are presented from Rwanda, Pakistan and South Africa.

By linking the corrupt activities of leaders in these countries to DFID grants insinuates that the whole thing is a racket, that British taxpayers are funding Palestinian terrorists, the palaces and planes of African dictators and that people in these countries are laughing at us for our stupidity.

This is simply not true. The poorest countries of the world are often the worst governed. What this means is that most citizens in those countries live in abject poverty and some will migrate to the west. Meanwhile the leaders may be living in luxury. Absolute wealth and grinding poverty are two sides of the same coin. They always go together.

Are we spending Aid money correctly?

The question for western governments is what can we do about it? Do we just ignore the plight of impoverished people in the Middle East and Africa, as countries like Russia do, or do we share 0.7% of our national income? Can we help these people without enriching corrupt leaders? To me it's a "no brainer" - I know that DFID funds (and monitors) specific projects and not corrupt politicians. Also, our own self-interest is at stake: helping poor countries is the best way of slowing down the mass migration into Europe.

But are we spending that money correctly? Writing in the Guardian, Simon O'Connell, the CEO of Mercy Corps Europe says "we should welcome a discussion about the UK's commitment to aid spending". He also gets across the vital importance of aid work.

Mercy Corps received £27m for a two-year programme in Syria: "In a country with such weak governance and extensive conflict, this is extraordinarily complex and high risk." writes O'Connell. "It has never been more urgent to engage positively with the world's challenges. There are more displaced people now than at any time since the second world war - 60 million people, half of them children...The UK is a leader in using its aid budget to tackle these issues. It is an essential part of our global role."

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Rupert Wolfe Murray also worked for International Medical Corps and the International Rescue Committee. He currently lives in Liverpool and runs a new organisation called Untold Stories PR. A longer version of this story was published on his personal blog.

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