Louise Mensch is MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire. Follow Louise on Twitter.
On Wednesday George Osborne will stand up in parliament and deliver his budget. Assuming he hasn’t had a change of heart and decided to row back on promises set out in the Conservative manifesto and the Coalition Agreement, the detail in the Red Book will confirm that the UK will meet its promise to spend 0.7% of our national income on aid from next year.
Is this the right thing to do? Aid has been much in the news lately since a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times showed that 66% of Britons thought we were spending too much on aid. I welcome this debate. All government spending should be scrutinised, because every penny of taxpayers' money should be spent well. But I strongly believe that our aid money is being well spent and the decision to stick to the promised spending plan is the right one.
Sometimes politicians should follow the public, and listen to the polling. But too much "government by focus group" was the hallmark of where the last Labour government failed. Always going for what was popular in that minute, Labour ducked all the hard choices, and wound up with not only the colossal deficit that is their legacy to the nation, but too few positive achievements in the plus column. What people truly want from Prime Ministers, and Chancellors too, is leadership and ideology. "Ideology" has become a dirty word, but it shouldn't be. You need to stand for something. You need to have a clear vision, run for election on that vision, and pursue it in government. This is more important than whether an individual policy polls well or poorly.
What defined David Cameron, and George Osborne alongside him, in opposition, was that they were new types of Conservatives. Essentially, that they married fiscal conservatism with social liberalism. There is the tension with the right; and there is the sum total of Cameronism. It can be found in IDS's welfare reforms, which so beautifully marry proper responsible finances with visionary social justice. Iain's work in the Centre for Social Justice, in opposition, changed both him and the entire Conservative movement. The Universal Credit is the biggest idea to come out of British politics for decades. It will change lives and the country. It is to George Osborne's eternal credit that he could think long-term enough to absorb the upfront costs of reform. And the welfare debate, including the benefits cap at £26k, is one our party should relish.
Our party has always been the party of sound finances. To this, Cameron, Osborne and the team below them have added two vital words – social justice. We stand for social justice. That includes sustainable help to the poorest people in the world, help that we owe as a great nation. The poorest people in Britain are infinitely better off than the poorest in the developing world. 0.7% is never going to break the bank. It is responsible, sustainable, and socially just. When I listen to people online complaining about just 0.7% in aid, all I hear is "Am I my brother's keeper?" It wasn't an attractive slogan first time around.
New analysis published today by ONE, shows just what an impact our aid will have on the poorest people in the world between now and 2015. Amazingly our decisions mean that 80 million children will be vaccinated over the next four years, saving 1.4 million lives. That’s 1.4 million mothers who won’t have to see their children die from a preventable disease, knowing that if she lived in a different village or earned just a bit more money from the produce she sold at market, her child could still be alive.
Our aid will make sure that nearly 10 million people are well fed so that children can grow up strong and healthy, able to learn and make a living so that in time they can support their own family. It will provide safe drinking water for 17 million people. It will save the lives of 50,000 mums and ensure 5.8 million births take place in a safe environment, so that mother and baby are not alone but supported by a health worker – giving them both the best possible start in life.
The list of results, of lives changed and transformed, goes on. Some commentators on this site and elsewhere have said the aid budget could be cut or frozen with no mention of the impact. Let's be clear, cutting the aid budget means fewer vaccines for kids, more mothers giving birth in appalling conditions and the risk of recently conflict affected states going backwards. Of course there needs to be transparency and accountability over the money we spend, but compare these results to what other government departments do. Even at a rate of 0.7% of national income aid amounts to just 1.6 pence in every pound of government spending. Few other items of government spending achieve so much, for relatively small sums.
None of this means we shouldn't find messages within polling that can shape not if we give – that is our commitment to social justice, what the modern Conservative party stands for – but how we give. 69% said we should wind down our aid to India. Repeated trade snubs and the fact that that nation has just signed an energy and space pact with Vladimir Putin certainly mean that India ought not to be a prime target for our aid. In opposition, it was reported that much Tory thinking focused on a book by Paul Collier called "The Bottom Billion", which certainly shaped my view on aid. Its essential premise is that the traditional "aid recipients" are countries that are no longer that poor, and that help is better targeted to those nations who definitively need it – the world's poorest billion people. Think Burkina Faso, not India. In my view, greater government focus on the truly needy would see that original 66% who think we spend too much on aid reduce rapidly. People want value for money, including in development.
If we cut aid back now – the progress we have seen in recent years would stall. And we’d be seen across the world as a promise-breaker not a promise keeper. Our work in international development is something we should all take great pride in. The results are remarkable and UK is a standard bearer around the world for how international development should be done. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported in 2010 that “the UK is in many ways seen as a model by other donors.” We are constantly improving our aid programmes, investing the best live-saving programmes.
In 2015 this government will be able to look back and say we were honest. We didn’t balance the books on the backs of the poor. We stuck to our promise. And as a result we have transformed the lives of many millions of people around the world.
Read the full ONE report "Small Change: Big Difference" by visiting www.one.org/bigdifference