Little England, Little Thinking

So let's speak up for foreign aid...even if selfishly.

I speak, of course, about that great plague on British society, FOREIGN AID. Naturally, the right-wing press rarely say it's just 0.7% of the government's but they should. Tell a person aid has gone up by £1.2 billion to over £13 billion (which to be sure, is true) and they'll probably spit their tea out. Tell them under one penny of every pound they pay in tax goes towards to the economic and social development of some of the world's poorest nations, and most people will likely be much more receptive to the idea. 13 BILLION is a big scary figure. 0.7% isn't.

The Mail clearly lucked out - this story, or at least the Mail's reporting of it*, is their perfect cocktail of moral vice: vain, narcissistic spending on foreigners, mixed with drugs, hookers and the EU (*as the correction at the bottom of the article claims, the drugs/hookers/EU angle is perhaps misleading at the start of the article).

John Stevens, naturally in perfect neutrality, writes: "The surge will raise pressure on the Government to scrap the aid promise at a time when vital services at home such as social care, the NHS and schools are so squeezed." (Because of course the Mail is always so concerned about protecting the public sector.)

The article then goes on to detail supposedly egregious examples of profligacy in aid spending (while quietly noting at the bottom the stated figures might include costs of related projects in the same country):

£24,223 for training the traditional rulers of chiefdoms in the western region of Cameroon to implement women's rights.

£608 for the Solomon Islands' paralympic team.

£15,950 for developing the rugby skills of disadvantaged youths from South Africa

£34,577 for building links between the creative industries in the UK and Peru to 'increase the appetite for collaboration'.

£5,183 for reducing discrimination against elderly Palestinians.

£8,823 Helping the Albanian police to improve their media handling of major crime incidents, including through a study visit to Manchester.

If that's the most 'pointless' £89,364 worth of spending the Mail could find in over £13 billion, then frankly the government is probably doing a rather good job.

Of course the Mail and other tabloids are free to publish what they want, and it's reasonable to question where foreign aid goes. However, the insistent attacks on not just the particulars of foreign aid but, to some extent, the whole concept of it reinforces an idea of 'elites' imposing their 'vanity projects' on 'ordinary people' against their will, which is not really true. According to a Eurobarometer poll, asked if the UK should keep its promise to development aid, 54% said yes - admittedly hardly a conclusive statistic, but one which debunks the idea it's mere 'common sense' to cut foreign aid.

The tabloids purport to merely 'reflect public opinion' on the issue but, with their relentlessly negative coverage, their sentiment is somewhat at odds with the British public, which is, according to the World Giving Index, more charitable than all European counterparts.

The irony is that there's a good case that foreign aid can work even in the interests of nationalist Little Englanders. In an era when geopolitical tensions are increasingly played out not by soldiers on battlefields, but by lone attackers in ordinary streets and hackers in cyberspace, 'soft power' is vitally important to a major nation such as the UK. Foreign aid, used effectively, can be a brilliant tool to this end, building vital diplomatic and economic relationships. To put it bluntly, what's the point exporting a service or product to a country where the people are not literate or healthy enough to use it? To be sure, it's preferable to do good for good in itself rather than for reasons of pragmatic national self-interest, but the two are not mutually exclusive. And foreign aid supporters are often decried as airy-fairy virtue signallers with no grasp on reality...

Also, it provides a sharp comeback to the type of person who angrily writes into the Daily Mail (presuming those reader letters are in fact genuine) to fulminate over refugees coming over here and plotting to steal the Queen's corgis and indoctrinate them with the Koran (or some such nonsense)...

"If you dislike immigrants so much, help them stay where they belong...with foreign aid."

I jest, naturally. But it's not an entirely facetious point. Of course, money alone is not going to bring peace and stability to the world, but it's important means of promoting health. education, human rights, culture and other building blocks of a decent, stable society, one which people do not feel moved, or compelled, to flee from.

The trouble is international development has a bit of a PR problem. Success in improving health, education and economies is, almost by definition, gradual and the product of a vastly complicated network of cause and effect; while the failures - whether genuine, exaggerated or downright false - are immediate, ostensibly simple, and sensational (not in the good sense), like 'DICTATOR BUYS GOLD BATHTUB WITH FOREIGN AID MONEY'.

Yet the world is getting objectively better , and while this can no means be put down in the main to foreign aid (at less than 1% of most government's expenditure how could it?), it does go some way towards debunking the idea that it's useless and, instead, indicating it does some good.

So let's speak up for foreign aid...even if selfishly.


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