The author with Syrian refugees at a British-funded education project.
Nigel Evans is a member of the International Development Select Committee, and is MP for Ribble Valley.
The guns are out and in huge numbers. They are aiming full square to destroy the 0.7 per cent target of our gross national income which, by law, is spent on international development projects. The tabloids are no longer fighting a lone battle to expose waste, fraud, corruption, and vanity projects which help soak up the £12-13 billion annual aid budget.
Unless we make the compelling case for this aid, then I fear the game will be up. Should we not get to grips with the inadequacies of the system then maybe it should be.
As an MP, I am very familiar with the cry that charity begins at home, and it is difficult to defy the clarion call that millions of pounds of aid money is spent on a girl band in Ethiopia. Then there is the appalling example of hundreds of millions being sunk into an airport in St. Helena which finds it difficult to land aircraft when regular bouts of windshear are in full force. The Public Accounts Committee recently slammed the project. It would be embarrassing were it not so tragic.
There are also the multiple stories of fat cat aid bosses lapping up the cream with eye-watering salaries paid from money intended primarily to alleviate the poverty of the many and not enrich the few. That story will not go away and nor should it. It is the unacceptable face of aid capitalism.
Recent months have seen regular news stories about the destiny of some of this aid money. Billions of pounds are apparently sitting in Whitehall accounts as promissory notes for projects which have yet to draw upon them. Significant sums are ploughed into agencies in which transparency is shrouded in fog.
As a Conservative who cares about our moral responsibility role to the most vulnerable in the world, I rise easily to the challenge of defending the 0.7 per cent. But I cannot defend some of the projects, or indeed some of the practices surrounding our aid.
Some of the money is meted out by other Government departments in questionable ways. A billion pounds is diverted to the EU’s aid budget for it to decide on priorities. The future of our EU aid obligation will be decided by the Government post-Brexit, but further streamlining of all the aid budget in one department is surely desirable: a one neck on one block policy would ensures that we know where the blame lies.
As a member of the International Development Select Committee, I have recently witnessed at first-hand amazing projects funded wholly or in part by UK aid. I have recently returned for the Lebanon and Jordan, where I saw our funding of school projects for Syrian refugees, some of whom had been denied education for five years.
I looked into the faces of some bewildered children who were starved of more than teaching . One small boy looked vacant and his growth stunted through lack of food. Some youngsters were receiving extra attention to help address the unspeakable horrors that they had witnessed and themselves endured. Some young girls were sitting three to a desk, but they were forced to wear overcoats and bonnets as the school lacked any heating.
One bright young girl demonstrated how she rubbed her hands in class in order to get the blood moving so she could write in lessons. In one camp, we saw refugee children playing in the yard. They were smiling. They were the lucky ones. Some have family still in Syria, and some had lost loved ones.
In one class they were being taught to care for one and other. They were counselled to be tolerant and understanding of their fellow pupils. They were strangers a few months ago, and now the common bond of their truly terrible past has created a band of brothers. They now have hope.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo a few months ago, I witnessed young children struggling to carry large yellow containers from a village tap gushing forth clean water. Previously these kids and their mothers would have had to travel miles to the nearest water source to fetch water of dubious cleanliness back to where they lived.
We also visited a hospital in the east of the country where we saw youngsters being treated for all kinds of conditions, including those who had been victims of the brutal bloody conflict. Some had travelled days to get to the hospital through rough terrain. I saw children kicking a football in the garden of that hospital – their former cries of pain and fear replaced now with cries heard on any UK makeshift football pitch.
My last enduring memory is of a visit to Uganda in the summer, when I travelled to a remote rural area to look at the immunisation programme of toddlers. Huts housed with fridges kept the vaccines fresh, and trained nurses sat in the open under a tree providing much-needed shade. They were surrounded by mums with children patiently waiting their turn to receive their three in one jabs. Some fathers watched on in the distance as their kids were being protected from illnesses which in the past would have killed them.
I have seen many more projects over the years – such as HIV ones which reduce the risk of infection, or the dissemination of anti-retrovirals. I also saw a sensory room in one hospital providing some extra quality of life for children who had succumbed to rubella. These are quality projects. These are saving lives and transformational. These are hope giving projects replacing despair and certain death or hideous effects of disease.This is your money being effectively spent.
I know we are achieving superb results. I also know we could be doing more. There are too many millions of children, and their families who need our help desperately. Too many will have died today alone where our intervention could have made the difference. There are tens of thousands of new refugees on the Jordan-Syria border needing urgent help.
The tragedy of Aleppo will have dramatically multiplied that number seeking immediate help. The Secretary of State for DFID is relatively new in her post, and is reviewing the spending and her priorities. I wish her well in this task. It is clearly needed and speedy results and tough choices will be necessary.
The very future of the integrity of her budget is at stake, but more than that is the good that this money is and can do for the future. I am fighting to retain that target which has been so undermined recently. Unless we sort out the problems right now, then I fear it is a battle I will lose. The real losers though have much more to lose than face.