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Yes, Charity Begins At Home... But Should Not End There

18/04/2017 17:07 BST | Updated 20/04/2017 12:23 BST
vlad_karavaev via Getty Images

Another week, another round of predictable tabloid hysteria against the UK Government's overseas aid spending. This week, it's the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) figures that are prompting the fury from those that oppose the UK's spending on aid.

The cliché for many who oppose our aid spending is the famous charity begins at home. But this is a terribly misused and misunderstood quote. Most people conveniently leave out the crucial second part which is: but should not end there.

When Thomas Fuller, the British clergyman and author, coined this famous phrase in the 17th century, he meant the opposite of what people twist it to mean now. He was talking about people (usually men) who would make a point of being kind and generous in public, perhaps at church, but then treat their family at home in a much less generous manner. His point was - act in the same loving and generous way to those close to you in private, as you do in public. He never meant that we as a nation should only help those at home in our own nation, but ignore the wider world.

Which brings us to today's latest aid figures, announced by the OECD. They show that, in 2016, there was a slight increase on 2015 in terms of how much aid is being spent by countries in total - the increase largely because of money countries are spending supporting refugees fleeing from conflict. Six major countries (Norway, Luxembourg, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the UK) spent the OECD's target of 0.7% of their Gross National Income (GNI) on aid. Between 2015 and 2016, the UK's aid spending increased a little, in line with an increase in economic growth - but it remained proportionately the same at 0.7% of GNI. Four countries still spend more than us proportionally. Germany joined the club of countries spending 0.7% of GNI on aid for the first time, and the UK fell to the third biggest overall aid donor. Increases in aid spending were also seen from Germany, Italy, Ireland, Belgium and the US (although these are 2016 figures and pre-President Trump, so next year we'll likely to see a US decrease). Also, worryingly, overall aid to the poorest countries actually fell by nearly 4%.

While some may disagree, I'm proud of the role that UK Aid plays in helping some of the world's poorest people, particularly right now with famine in countries like South Sudan and Yemen. The UK Government and charities like Christian Aid are helping real people across the world to live better lives in future, by helping them start businesses, receive healthcare and education. We're also helping people to rebuild their homes, health and lives following disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti or Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone.

While the nation debates what a global Britain should look like post-Brexit, I hope that we can stop talking about slashing our aid budget. It's not in our national interest. It would leave some of the world's poorest people high and dry, and make our world less safe, healthy and prosperous for everyone.

I agree we should keep working to spend our aid as effectively as possible. But let me bust a couple of myths here. The UK's Department for International Development (DFID) is one of the most transparent and effective aid organisations in the world. It has no more waste than any other UK Government department, and its spending is scrutinised by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (http://icai.independent.gov.uk/). If waste is found in our NHS, we don't talk about cutting NHS spending - we fix the problem. The same should be true in aid. And other departments, such as the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence, who also have an overseas aid budget, need to become as transparent and effective as DFID in how they spend aid.

We need to work smarter to use our aid to tackle the root causes of poverty as well as its symptoms, so that developing countries can move to a future free of aid dependency. For example, climate change is wreaking havoc in the developing world. We know that spending to prepare for and adapt to environmental disasters is more efficient than spending once the disaster has struck, so let's get better at doing this. Let's do more to help women and girls, who represent the majority of the world's poor. And while we're at it, let's keep tackling some of the structures that are keeping poor countries poor, such as the network of secretive tax havens that suck so much money away from developing countries (incidentally - the UK still governs many of the world's biggest tax havens).

I completely accept that there is a huge amount of need in the UK - and we should do all we can to tackle it. But this is not a zero-sum game. We have charity at home, but it shouldn't end there. For less than £1 a week for the average taxpayer, aid has halved extreme poverty in the last 40 years, and child mortality has halved since 1990. We're making progress, and have a global plan to eliminate poverty by 2030 which has been agreed by world leaders. We are working to make a better world that will be good for both the UK and other countries. Now is not the time to give up.

I respect those who disagree with me. I recognise there is a debate to be had, both moral and practical. But I wish we could debate these complex issues openly without sensationalist and false reporting, and without taking half a quote out of context, and using it in the opposite way to how it was originally intended.

Let's deal in hard facts and clear statistics. That would be a start.