21/02/2013 08:03 GMT | Updated 23/04/2013 06:12 BST

Aid vs Defence: A False Debate

The aid debate in the UK at the moment needs one of those furniture labels: "highly flammable - keep away from naked flame". If you go near it with anything at all combustible, you're likely to get burnt.

There's a big question over whether David Cameron's reported comments on the way back from his India trade mission, in which appeared to suggest using more aid money for military spending, actually amounted to much. But in the fevered pre-budget climate in Britain, they have caused excitement and alarm.

The fact is, channelling aid money through defence budgets on any scale would quickly hit a large brick wall in the form of the internationally-agreed definition of Official Development Assistance (which Downing Street have made clear the prime minister does not want to change). As Alex Evans points out in his blog on Global Dashboard, the rules as to what can and cannot be deemed 'aid' (or Overseas Development Assistance - ODA - as the wonks call it) are pretty strict. The only spending that would be allowed through the MOD on peacekeeping or security is the sort of spending that the Department for International Development is undertaking already (human rights, rehabilitation of demobilised soldiers, mine removal etc.). Indeed, DFID is currently ranked as the most transparent and effective development department in the world and the UK's security-focused aid spending was recently ranked as above average by the Center for Global Development; above the likes of the United States, Netherlands and Sweden.

However, while in truth there is little chance of Mr Cameron diverting a large amount of aid money to pay for defence, the way his comments have been seized upon risk setting up a false debate, with those backing aid spending and those backing defence spending at each others' throats.

Look at the numbers. As our neat little tax calculator shows, a UK taxpayer earning £30,000 per year will pay £7,065 in tax. Of that, £67 will go to the aid budget and £403 towards defence. That leaves £6,595 for everything else. A proper debate about government spending should surely recognise that pitching defence spending against aid is like robbing a pretty hard-up Peter to pay an even more impoverished Paul. If you want to find where the money is in the UK budget, you don't go to aid and you probably don't go to defence either.

As for relieving poverty in countries hit by conflict: everyone who has worked in development knows it is hard, but it can be done. The DFID is right to look more closely at this, as the secretary of state Justine Greening promised to do when she set out her thinking at a ONE event two weeks ago.

Reducing poverty through effective aid bolsters the UK's strategic and foreign policy interests. For relatively small amounts of money the UK is able to play a key role in some of the most vulnerable and unstable parts of the planet. As former chief of defence staff Lord Stirrup has argued, "Helping people in these areas to self-reliance... to lift themselves out of poverty and to counter ignorance, will reduce the risk of conflict".

The UK government is showing global leadership in meeting the UN target to spend 0.7% of income on development in the year that we host the G8. Transparent aid, monitored for effectiveness, has had an enormous catalytic effect. Globally, extreme poverty has halved and child deaths dropped by more than 40% just two decades. The day when aid is no longer needed is getting closer. To turn away now would be in nobody's interest.