Whilst I may have been involved with many development charities in my time, all the following is purely my own views. With that said, I think Godfrey Bloom may have been onto something with his recent comments; or at least would had been had we been discussing this twenty or thirty years ago. Like everything in this world, aid and the development sector moves with the times and evolves accordingly.
For example, aid today is so much more than the old image of air dropping rice over a warzone or plumbing a borehole in central Africa. Yes, that still happens, but organisations are still pushing the boundaries of what aid is. The likes of Plan and CAMFED are actively working to empower women and girls in order to put them in a position where they can resist unwanted pregnancies, choose to use protection against AIDS and remove them from the threat of domestic violence. Additionally, studies have shown women in charge of household incomes often make much more sensible decisions on its spending; meaning this work on empowering women can actively reduce poverty at a family unit level.
Other organisations, have extensive programs in place to help villages set up sustainable forms of income, meaning not only does this reduce the long term spending of the UK on aid, it may even mean that these villagers will want to one day purchase UK exports. This is obviously not the goal of aid, but a beneficial side product. Some organisations are even responding to new issues, like ActionAid, soon to be seen debating the use of land to grow biofuels over using the land to grow much needed crops.
It is that word that is key: debate. The UK public, for all its continuing generosity and warmness towards Save the Children and their ilk, have a muddled (not always wrong) picture of what international development does, and how much is spent on it. The answer is not a lot. Only 0.7% of the Gross National Income. In perspective, that really is not a lot considering how many of billions of lives it improves, the improvement worldwide of the UK's image, increasing the stabilisation of nations that may prove breeding grounds for insurgents and a way of extending the UK's political reach overseas. Case in point, the recent removal of aid to Rwanda in response to the possibility that they were assisting militia and fuelling a war in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo.
That is one key area that Bloom got wrong. Aid no longer goes to "apartments in Paris" as he mistakenly said. Granted, it can happen on occasion, it is very difficult to track every pound of £11.3bn, but they have got a lot better than the era Bloom refers to as if it was the present. As shown in Rwanda, aid can be pulled back quickly if it is found to be misused. All programs now have built in accountability with multiple fail safes, and aid is better targeted, going strait to communities and institutions, not just handed over to warlords in the hope they would spend it on schools. In a few years, it will not even go to India in light of their economic success. Perhaps a misstep as billions of Indians are still in poverty, but at least aid spending can be seen to be reactive to changes in the international political economy.
All the organisation I have ever been involved with work tirelessly to see where they can save money, and even developments such as Skype have saved the sector billions in phone calls and needlessly flying people about for meetings that can now be held online. All this means that the amount given is going further, with less going on overheads, and more to those that matter.
This is what the public needs to hear. Bloom was clearly misinformed, but he exemplifies the confusion and misunderstanding around aid. The government, and the charities it funds its spending through, need to act quickly in the space created in Bloom's wake. By this, I mean they need to engage the public in dialogue of what is spent, how much of it goes where, what the results are and how it benefits the average man in the street. I do not just mean through adverts, which often actually harm the perception people have of aid by constantly relying on stock images of malnourished children, and not pushing the positive images of the amazing thing aid does.
By being transparent, by presenting a unified front, and actively talk with, not to, the public, then we may be able to end the debate on what use is aid in an economic downturn. If we could clear the air of the chaff associated with the issue, then hopefully the UK public will agree that not only is aid a nice thing to do, but actively essential to the UK.