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Slashing Our Overseas Aid Budget Would Be the Truly 'Mad' Decision

29/03/2016 09:41 | Updated 29 March 2016

Aid is risky. Let's be honest.

But it is absolutely in our national interest, the global interest - and it is our moral duty.

If you are going to operate in unstable and impoverished communities and countries to address challenges like disease, poor education, corruption, conflict and instability - there are going to be mistakes. Try telling any small-business entrepreneur working in this country, let alone the developing world, that they have to get it 100% right all of the time.

If you are going to try and work in countries like Afghanistan or Yemen, Somalia or the Democratic Republic of Congo to support women standing up against sexual violence; to attempt to inoculate and educate children who would die before they are five years old, or fall prey to mass unemployment that could leave their hands idle to be exploited by extremists or criminals; to build up government institutions so countries can collect their own taxes and end their need for aid in the first place; then you are not always going to succeed.

If you are going to try and support refugees fleeing Dae'sh/Isis in the volatile regions surrounding the conflict, rather than see more make the perilous journey across the seas to Western Europe; or to attempt to support people in far flung communities in Nepal or Haiti hit by a devastating earthquake; it isn't always going to work out like you might have planned in Whitehall. I saw that for myself visiting Afghanistan at the height of our military, development and diplomatic intervention there.

But it is a damn sight better to make that effort and succeed most of the time, than having not tried, or worse still taking the foolish decision to withdraw and ignore the turbulent and impoverished world around us.

A world whose convulsions have consequences for our streets and our cities. And a world whose horrors should shame every British citizen, whether the 800 women who die every day in childbirth due to preventable causes, or the 20,000 children who die every day under the age of five due to diseases like malaria or diarrhoea.

Any investigation or newspaper can find examples of where money is wasted, or where mistakes are being made - whether it's in our local council, the NHS or in the overseas aid budget. It is vital such work continues.

It is absolutely right that any new allegations that have come to light are robustly examined, and action taken urgently where necessary, not least where allegations are made about money ending up in the hands of extremists - an allegation DfID has strongly denied.

I have every confidence that such an investigation will take place, and robust action taken if proven. This is because the Department for International Development is one of the most scrutinised and examined departments in government - including by specialised independent bodies that have been set up like the Independent Commission for Aid Impact which reports to Parliament, not the Government.

But - a leap from exposing specific faults, or even dangerous or corrupt practises, to making a general dismissal of our aid budget is a dangerous and foolish mistake to make in our volatile world.

The Mail on Sunday claim on the basis of a series of stories: "Rather than helping people who desperately need it, much of this money is wasted and...fuels corruption, funds despots and corrodes democracy in developing nations."

Let's take each of those lazy allegations in turn:

Corruption thrives in conditions of extreme poverty and insecurity. It's no coincidence that countries like Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan hold up the bottom of the global Corruption Index produced by Transparency International.

We have withdrawn our aid (or never even permitted) support on occasions where we had clear evidence that corrupt or indulgent leaders or governments planned to misuse it - Malawi and Zimbabwe being just two examples in recent years.

And democracy will only truly thrive when people in the world's poorest countries perceive a real link between voting and paying taxes, with governments that are able to improve their safety, job prospects, education and health to take but a few examples.

There are many things that this Tory government has done which I deride, but in all fairness, they have taken a number of crucial steps in the right direction to improve the scrutiny and effectiveness of our aid budget.

They have regularly reviewed the countries and international bodies that receive our support. They don't always get this right (e.g. in scrapping aid to volatile Burundi) but other decisions such as scrapping aid to rapidly developing India, whilst a tough choice given the levels of poverty that remain, were absolutely right.

They have increased the independent oversight and scrutiny of the aid budget - which is widely regarded to be one of the most professional and impactful in the world.

And they have rightly increased the coordination between our defence, diplomatic and development activities under the National Security Council. The nonsense that there is a zero-sum game between military spending and aid must be taken head on. That doesn't mean this government are always pulling in the same, or right direction - as the current and growing questions around UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia being used in Yemen shows.

But - I like many others am as strong a supporter of the 2% defence target, as I am in maintaining our extensive diplomatic network and aid spending. And the truth is that in 2014/15 defence spending made up about 75% of our total international focussed spending - with aid, diplomacy and intelligence making up 25%.

For all of our efforts on "soft" development and diplomatic paths - sometimes "hard" (and expensive) military intervention e.g. to cope with a barbarous regime like Da'esh / ISIS is crucial.

The Mail on Sunday make eight "recommendations":

  • First, they want to scrap the aid target. What the Mail don't tell you (like many financial adverts) is that the new law means that the amount of aid can go down as well as up. The law passed to meet the 0.7% aid commitment will actually now result in the UK aid budget falling by £650million over the next few years due to declining economic growth.
  • Second, they tell us to "only spend on what's needed". This is a vacuous suggestion that takes no account of disasters, complex conflicts or rapidly emerging situations like the Ebola outbreak. Of course DfID should not make up projects to spend money to a target, and there is a genuine challenge of coping with an increased budget with lower back office staffing.
  • Third, they tell us to "hit the fat cat contractors". This is one of the few areas where they make a good point. Like in many areas of the public sector under this Tory government, we have seen an explosion in poor value for money contracting out to profit-making enterprises delivering public goods. DfID need to get this under control.
  • Fourth, they tell us to make sure that projects are reviewed and audited independently. They are.
  • Fifth, they tell DfID to stop funding "despots". The truth is the UK has for the last 15 years taken huge steps to ensure money doesn't get into the hands of repressive or corrupt governments. There will always be an element of risk however, and there are inherent difficulties in judging a government such as Rwanda who has as many ardent supporters in the West as critics.
  • Sixth, they tell DfID to end Programme Partnership Agreements - large grants to charities. They are already doing this, although some argue this will lead to less efficient support of charities, not better.
  • Seventh, they say there should be an "independent whistleblower" and "hotline".This already exists, and in my own experience of reporting allegations, these are dealt with thoroughly and swiftly.
  • Eight, they want a "beefed up watchdog" to investigate aid. This already exists. And DfID is regularly and robustly scrutinised in Parliament.

On the basis of a list of poorly researched recommendations, the Mail on Sunday misleads its readers that none of these things are being done, and exhorts them to "stop the madness" and sign a petition to scrap the 0.7% aid target.

The usual suspects from the hard right of the Tories and Ukip have weighed in support, forgetting to remind us that they are equally as happy to slash support for the poor and vulnerable at home, regardless of the size of the aid budget.

But the growing chaos in Yemen, Somalia and across parts of Northern and Central Africa show exactly what the consequences of ignoring the gross poverty and instability in our back yard can be.

A tiny investment as a proportion of overall government spending, amounting to less than a penny in every pound of national income - helps us to tackle those threats, and help change millions of lives for the better. It also can show the world that Britain is at its best a compassionate and moral global power.

What would be madness is slashing the very budget focused on tackling the gross poverty, instability and insecurity that threatens our national and global security, drives people to flee their countries to drown in the Mediterranean, but most importantly - degrades us all as human beings.

Stephen Doughty is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Cardiff South and Penarth. Prior to entering Parliament, he worked for humanitarian agencies World Vision and Oxfam, and was a Senior Adviser at the Department for International Development. He is a former Shadow Minister for Trade and Industry, and Foreign Affairs. He currently sits on the International Development Select Committee in Parliament.

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