The Sun and other tabloids have made a lot of noise in recent weeks about a handful of - I have to admit somewhat dubious sounding - aid projects run by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). And while it might be hard to argue that these projects all represent great value for money for the UK taxpayer and most importantly for the people UK aid is supposed to help, it does also feel a little like The Sun making a mountain out of a molehill. Of course all UK taxpayer money should be spent well and deliver its intended objectives. The FCO and ministers clearly should be reviewing and better scrutinising the department's aid spending.
But at the same time, it needs to be kept in perspective. These projects totalled less than 1% of the FCO's relatively small aid budget and an even tinier fraction of total UK aid spending (something like 0.0025%). It's never ok to waste scarce resources but the response and outcry should be at least vaguely proportional.
It needs to be balanced against all the good done by UK aid - the projects that work well, deliver great results and value for money. Though this is not something The Sun generally chooses to write about.
At the most basic and essential level, aid is and will remain a vital source of funding for many countries who cannot yet raise enough tax to pay for much-needed social services and goods including things like education and healthcare but also in the longer term helping to build the capacity to raise and more effectively use those resources.
UK aid contributes to building a fairer world where more people live free from poverty, fewer die from preventable causes like malnutrition or childbirth and there are more opportunities for all. Which arguably has the not insignificant side benefit of also helping with things like peace and security. The UK government's commitment to delivering on our aid commitments - including the 0.7% aid/GNI target that was enshrined in law earlier this year - is something to be welcomed and celebrated. While times are certainly tough here in the UK and resources are always scarce, the UK aid budget is a small proportion of total UK government spending (under 2%).
This seems like a false dichotomy. It is not necessary or right to have to choose between helping those in need in the UK or in other, poorer countries - for that relatively small amount we can achieve a huge amount.
But this also depends on aid being spent well and used effectively. And that is where we can almost always do better. As this incident has demonstrated, projects need regular scrutiny and assessment. Though it is worth noting that the UK aid budget is already one of the most scrutinised parts of government spending with a parliamentary oversight body in the International Development Select Committee and the National Audit Office alongside the newer aid watchdog ICAI (Independent Commission for Aid Impact).
Equally importantly however is moving beyond this monitoring and evaluation of individual projects to invest time and effort in learning, innovating and researching to build the knowledge bank and evidence needed to continue improving the effectiveness of aid. Some of this work has and is already being done through the development effectiveness process - global agreements and a forum that provide a space to share evidence and ideas on improving how we do development based on principles like fostering greater transparency, mutual accountability and inclusiveness, a focus on results and democratic ownership. The UK, like many donor countries, is a signatory to these agreements and part of this forum but, again like many donors, progress on implementation has been rather slow and it is unfortunately not currently at the top of the political agenda. This has to change given the scale of the challenge.
Next week the global development community is gathering in Addis Ababa to hopefully agree an ambitious financing framework for the next 15 years, ensuring that limited financial resources like aid are used as effectively as possible is vital. And if there is one useful thing The Sun has highlighted, it is that the UK government needs to make as much progress on meeting its quality and effectiveness commitments as it has on quantity.