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DH_JH_PortobelloDamian Hinds is MP for East Hampshire and chairs the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility. Follow Damian on Twitter.

In difficult economic times, dedicating 0.7% of GNI to international aid can look hard to justify.

To be sure, however tough things are here, they are clearly far worse in Bangladesh or Sierra Leone.  Although charity may begin at home, it doesn’t end there.  We are also part of a shared humanity, and Britons are very generous towards development charities.

But with so many financial pressures, if governments are to maintain support for public funding, they and NGOs need to get better at demonstrating also that, beyond the purely altruistic, there are strong national interest reasons for investing in international development. As business leaders argue in the FT (yesterday), there is clearly much at stake for Great Britain PLC, as well as the poorest communities in the world.

It starts with showing that development programmes have had, and are having, real impact.  Life expectancy in Africa has risen by a tenth over the past decade and there has been remarkable progress on child mortality; real income per person has increased by more than 30% over the same period; secondary school enrolment grew by 48% between 2000 and 2008; and the average number of children per mother is projected to fall from 5.03 in 2008 to 3.88 by 2020. This last point is crucial, and to some counter-intuitive. But as girls go to school, women are empowered and can access family planning, and as infant mortality rates drop, the number of children per family tends to fall.

Such key development deliverables fulfil four prominent areas of self-interest for the UK and other rich-world nations:

1) Population stabilisation mitigates the growth in demand for world resources such as food and oil.
2) Economic growth, specialisation and trade in developing nations lead to higher Gross World Product and new export markets to trade with.
3) Building self-sufficiency against natural disasters and in defence means fewer emergency calls for aid; and these nations can eventually make a contribution themselves to global security.
4) Better social infrastructure can mean less lawlessness, fewer opportunities for radicalisation and fewer wars to intervene in.

The essence of the development relationship is to assist a weaker nation until it is able to stand alone, at which point it becomes a partner rather than a dependant.   Emerging market and developing economies constituted a much bigger share of world GDP per capita growth in the 2000s than the 1990s.  As the 28 CEOs argue in today’s FT, “Developing countries become emerging economies and emerging economies become the engines of future global growth and prosperity.”

But much development spend has in decades past been wasted, some even counter-productive. DfID’s reforms mean that it is increasingly  well targeted on the things that make the biggest difference, and focused on the poorest people. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to ask vital questions about where money goes, how and on what.

A strong policy environment in the recipient nation is key to ensuring that donated money is spent effectively; there must be the roots of an infrastructure – both physical and in the sense of a legal framework – that can deliver the results, and a will on the part of the leadership to stamp out corruption and vanity projects and ensure that aid actually reaches those it is intended to assist.  In some countries, general budget support may be appropriate; in others it must be specific and highly policed, or channelled through civil society organisations including charities and churches, who have the capacity and networks to deliver.

With so many poor places in the world, there is nothing wrong with focusing official development assistance on places where there is a particular synergy with the donor nation. Sometimes these things are not as expected – we actually heavily under-index in trade with some Commonwealth countries. Overall we can do more to create mutually beneficial opportunities without tying aid to inefficient trade restrictions, and this is something the government obviously appreciates.

It is right for Great Britain to take a leadership role in development, but all rich nations must shoulder their share. They all stand to benefit in the long run, and the 0.7% target is there partly to minimise the ‘free rider’ problem; we must not relent in our pressure on others to fulfil their obligations.  Every pound that we spend ourselves has to be used to its full potential so that we can maximise our global opportunities and secure a safer, more prosperous future from the help we give across the world.

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