Government’s overseas aid policy is right, its insular critics are wrong

Nik Darlington 4.27pm

The Chinese philosopher Confucius once taught, “He who wished to secure the good of others, has already secured his own.”

Relate this to the UK’s aid policy and the misanthropic school of thought, typified by today’s Daily Mail editorial, says that the UK should not be prioritising the “good of others” because we have enough problems of our own and money is in short supply. Accordingly, we should be cutting foreign aid instead of cutting domestic aid, or in the Mail's words, “tax rises, child benefit and valued services.”

An alternative view - the correct view - is that tackling poverty and disease in the developing world is a moral imperative and in our national interest. Thankfully, this was the view adopted by David Cameron’s Conservative party some years ago in Opposition, and is now being carried out in Government.

The anti-slavery campaigner and Tory MP, William Wilberforce, said, ”You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again you did not know.” Each day, nearly 25,000 children die from preventable diseases, such as smallpox and polio, and nearly 1,000 women die in pregnancy and childbirth. More than a billion people live on less than one dollar a day. Development aid to India has been criticised but International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, is correct to point out that India is a “development paradox”, where “there are more poor people in three states than there are in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.”

There is recognition of past mistakes. The development sector has improved its practices enormously in recent years, becoming more professional and targeting. Governments and international bodies are moving away from direct payments to payment by results. Dambisa Moyo’s sensational book, Dead Aid, was correct about aid in so many ways but, one could ask, where is that bolting horse?

The Conservative Party’s Green Paper on foreign aid in 2009 acknowledged that aid had to be better targeted, more discriminating and more demanding, instead of appearing in countries’ bank accounts on the anonymous click of a mouse. That is why countries and NGOs need to demonstrate effective results. It is why DFID are introducing tougher scrutiny through the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, with a zero tolerance approach to corruption, to which Kenyan expert John Githongo has been recruited. It is why David Cameron has insisted that aid (including EU aid) is denied to repressive states, and it is why Andrew Mitchell has fulfilled the Conservatives’ pledge to review aid recipients, cutting aid to a number of countries such as Russia and China.

DFID’s ring-fenced £8.4 billion budget remains controversial but it is necessary if the UK is to keep its promise to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI from 2013, a pledge made in the 2010 manifestoes of both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

The 0.7 per cent figure seems arbitrary but it has been calculated as the amount needed from the developed world in order to achieve the Millennium Development Goals before 2015.

Yet the figure is not static. In the 1970s, the MDGs would have required more than 1 per cent of GNP. The necessary proportion has fallen in the intervening period because of sustained global economic growth. This demonstrates the other side to development assistance, which is encouraging the creation, restoration and stability of institutions and economic capabilities of developing countries. Whether promoting good governance or the enforcement of property rights, putting in place the necessary environment for stable economic growth - at home and abroad - can make the MDGs even more affordable.

As Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, has said, “In Africa today, we recognise that trade and investment, and not aid, are pillars of development.” Alexander mentioned this morning that genuinely free trade is the best way out of poverty for developing countries. On an economic front, significant reform of the CAP would make far more of a difference than massive increases in development aid, for instance.

Even so, the fruits of freer trade and economic growth will come in the future. There is development to achieve in the here and now. If the Government does not address the fundamental causes of disease, poverty, climate change and - importantly for UK security - conflict zones (aid to Yemen has been doubled from £46.7m to £90m by 2015), the cost to the UK, in treasure and perhaps in blood, will be much higher and more painful than the few hundred pounds each taxpayer contributes today.

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