Nick de Bois is the Member of Parliament for Enfield North. Follow Nick on Twitter.
International development aid is always controversial; and seemingly perceived as unpopular – but ask fair minded people and they would, I suspect, still believe it is the right thing to do; but maybe just not right now. I don’t agree with that proposition, but I do agree that how much we spend on aid and how we spend it should be challenged and scrutinised. No one would support millions of pounds worth of taxpayers’ money being squandered on lawyers, water parks and administration fees.
Being wedded to the commitment of 0.7% of GDP being spent on aid will do nothing to curb waste and ineffective spending; it’s far more likely to increase it. As the Party that believes targets artificially distort priorities – it’s ironic we persist with them for international development rather than focus on effective spending and the best quality outcomes.
I recently joined Bob Blackman MP and Anne Main MP, who chairs the Conservative Friends of Bangladesh, on a privately funded trip to Sylhet and Dhaka. We witnessed some very impressive work being undertaken by charity groups both large and small where every single penny counted and delivered life changing improvements in impoverished communities. In the North of the country, for example, we visited the charity BRAC’s “Vision Bangladesh” project which is working towards eradicating preventable blindness for the poorest people. For a price which would embarrass any health manager in Britain, such life-changing treatments have meant that people are able to continue working and improve their life chances in some of the world’s poorest areas. BRAC receives money from the British taxpayer and spends it effectively – and it’s very difficult to argue against such an investment.
However, elsewhere, it’s evident that the good intentions of DfID are floundering; as some of the £190 million we provide to Bangladesh is either not reaching those most deserving of it, or being spent on consultancy programmes that don’t appear to be taking any steps towards the alleviation of poverty. DfID should be putting money into the hands of effective charitable organisations delivering on the ground, not questionable NGOs, consultants and some national government bodies.
Take, for example, the close to £20 million allocated for supporting schools throughout Bangladesh; which goes through a Bangladeshi government department. Schools in the country are in short supply in the most impoverished areas, so many are established by volunteers and dependent solely on donations. These same schools are often the ones not officially “adopted” by the Bangladeshi government as they cannot afford the cost of running all schools. Those that are adopted are, not surprisingly, most likely to receive a portion of DfID’s £20 million, whereas a non-adopted school won’t, simply because it is not being administered by a government department.
I don’t blame the Bangladesh government for this, as they are faced with enormous challenges – but DfID should be asking if British taxpayers’ money is reaching those most in need of it; and I suspect it's not. This would explain why Bob Blackman MP, Anne Main MP and I waded through a slum to get to the School of Hope in the Gulsham district of Dhaka. The school needs £1,200 a month to operate, providing a much-needed and invaluable education for grossly impoverished children, yet it doesn’t receive a single penny of British development aid.
How can we explain to the British taxpayer that it’s fine to spend some of their money on lawyers in Bangladesh to solve land disputes, and on consultants in Dhaka to provide advocacy seminars and training for minority groups to know their rights; whilst a tiny fraction of this spending could make a huge difference on the ground and offer a road map out of poverty through education and self-sustaining projects.
Justine Greening understands this, and I welcome her audit of the effectiveness of current DfID spending programmes. The taxpayer should not be asked to cough up any more money until such a time as we can prove the money we currently spend is well spent.