Last year, ConservativeHome polled its readers about international aid, and the results that came back weren’t as might have been expected, at least if one takes as a guide the comments below pieces on this site about the subject.
Over nine in ten Party member readers said that “the Government should help to fund emergency relief for people in other countries, for example in the case of floods, earthquakes or wars”. Here is aid at its most elemental. What the survey then found was that support for aid dipped as its aims gradually become less direct. 82 per cent said that the Government should help to fund the immunisation of children in other countries against preventable diseases. 76 per cent and 73 per cent believed that it should contribute to the funding of water and sanitation respectively for people in those countries.
54 per cent said that it should help to fund family planning and childrens’ education. 48 per cent that it should help pay for freer and fairer elections in other countries; 28 per cent that it should assist financially in helping to secure land and property rights. 21 per cent and 22 per cent thought that it should help to fund climate chage mitigation and adaptation abroad. Readers will spot the downward trend. But even so, our findings did not bear out the caricature of Party members sketched by their opponents. No result discovered fewer than a quarter of respondents backing what might be called the pro-aid position.
This wisdom of a crowd is not a bad starting-point to begin mulling the debate about aid, which by accident rather than design has featured prominently on ConservativeHome this week. One the one side were three Tory contributions from a new Save the Children book, which argued in a nutshell that aid gets a lot done, but there’s still much more to do. Andrew Mitchell, Christian Guy and Anne Jenkin were the authors. On the other was Michael Ashcroft, claiming that “aid is a very blunt instrument that often does more harm than good”, and that “the result can be more corruption, more conflict, more chaos”.
It is true that a crackdown on wasted and stolen money is unlikely to achieve anything much, with all due respect to Priti Patel, who announced one soon after being appointed as International Development Secretary. So did Justine Greening, her precedecessor, when she was appointed. So did Mitchell, who held the post before Greening. New International Development secretaries reach reflexively for these when appointed. It isn’t hard to understand why. They have to grapple not only with the nexus of aid charities but also with their opposite – the nexus of right-wing newspapers, a casual reading of which would suggest that no development money does any good at all.
A video we posted this week of Boris Johnson helps to explain why this simply isn’t so. The Foreign Secretary was visiting a refugee camp for Syrians in Turkey. In the film, he explained to taxpayers what their money is helping to fund: the training of police, the rescue of wounded people, the clearing of mines – what Johnson called “a huge chain of actions by the UK to try to remedy the Syrian crisis”. Were there no aid budget, some of those wounded people would die forthwith, and others would die later from uncleared mines. “By 2020,” last year’s Conservative Manifesto said, “we will save 1.4 million children’s lives, by immunising 76 million children against killer diseases”.
So were there no aid, there would be fewer children immunised against killer diseases, too, just as there would be less clean water and sanitation. A political point is all bound up with the humanitarian one. The Government has a mandate for these commitments of the same nature as its other ones – the holding of the EU referendum, for example. Its aid policy was set out in that manifesto, and the Conservatives were returned with a majority. Theresa May wants to tweak the policy. There is a new stress on the national interest (a legacy of her time at the Home Office), on women, and on modern slavery (another legacy). Downing Street will be taking an interest in Patel’s work.
This focus on women’s rights and value for money and wealth creation can throw up such a cloud of chatter as to obscure an emerging policy choice. Money, effort and resources can be spread as previously. Or they can be concentrated on North Africa and the Middle East, the sources of so much of the migrant crisis. This seems to be what Number Ten means by “the national interest” – the switching of development money to seek to slow if not stem the flow of desperate people. There is reason to pause before accepting this logic. The mass of people seeking to enter Europe are economic immigrants, not refugees. Evidence that more aid money would mean fewer is scanty.
Which returns us to where we started. The instinct of our readers is that the justification of aid spending is not that is good for us, but that it is good in itself. They are suspicious that it can be used effectively to build better societies or realise utopian schemes. But they tend to back it as a simple response to human need. The more development policy seeks to do this, the more public support it will gain. It isn’t necessary to believe that a 0.7 per cent aid target should be written into law (we don’t), or that there is magic about a hitting particular spending target (again, we don’t) to believe that this case for aid is sound – which we do.
This is why we make a point of holding, at Party Conference each year, a reception with Save the Children. Patel and Ruth Davidson will speak at it next Tuesday.