Tom Chapman is a former councillor and a member of South Leicestershire Conservative Association. He is moving to Brussels to work in the European Parliament.
As Margaret Thatcher noted, there is no such thing as public money; only taxpayers’ money. Efficiency can improve in any human endeavour, but aid finds itself dismissed as opaque, wasteful, and ineffective strikingly often.
This populist fallacy is dangerous, with negative media apparently prompting the Department for International Development’s (DfID) cancellation of successful projects.
As the Conservative Prime Minister who met the UN’s 0.7 per cent aid commitment, it is unsurprising that David Cameron recognised public demand for transparency: DfID achieves the Aid Transparency Index’s ‘very good’ ranking, with every outlay £500 spend recorded online. Aid’s cost-effectiveness is independently scrutinised by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, and is backed by Charity Commission funding (see International Development Secretary Priti Patel’s recent speech).
UK policy is nuanced; tackling multiple modern challenges through, for example, the Conflict, Security, and Stabilisation Fund and International Climate Fund. Private sector expertise also sharpens UK aid’s effectiveness. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations epitomises this, immunising 580 million children (see Bill and Melinda Gates’ 2017 Annual Letter for a thorough exposé of the advances made against global poverty).
Despite “historic” progress, with education expanded, inequality “mitigate[d]”, and polio near-eradicated, the argument that aid doesn’t work persists. Using WHO evidence, Sachs argues “a half-million children… would’ve succumbed to malaria” without aid. What’s more, one assessment found that $1 spent immunising a child returned “$44 in economic benefits”.
Aid is not simply the whim of civil servants or ministerial caprice, but delivers transformative results. With the public sceptical, this story needs to be told.
Slashing aid because ‘charity starts at home’ is short-sighted. The phrase states the blindingly obvious since every nation prioritises its own people. Britain is no different, devoting over 98 per cent of spending to domestic budgets. DfID’s budget is regularly overestimated.
Misgivings about UK aid’s value could stem from this “information gap” causing inflated perceptions of aid spending. Our sending of medics and military to tackle Ebola demonstrated that, whilst charity starts at home, the world’s problems do not respect our home’s borders. Had more aid focused on “building clinics” and “training doctors”, Ebola’s financial and human cost might have been less substantial.
Investment in our national interest
We know that poor educational attainment leads to poorer economic outcomes which, in turn, risk social disorder. Governments, therefore, aim to improve life chances.
Since this pattern is universal, the same logic justifies aid. Countries with few educational or economic opportunities are often unstable. The danger of failed states, and terrorists seeking to recruit the desperate, lurks never too far behind.
A healthier, better-educated, and more prosperous nation is less likely to prompt migratory waves or require UK military or medical intervention. As James Mattis, the US Defence Secretary, once said, “if you don’t fund the State Department fully then I need to buy more ammunition”.
Recognising this, DfID diverted spending towards nations vulnerable to Islamist extremism. Tellingly, Germany has hiked its aid budget to stabilise migration flows. Britain’s aid is thus an investment to mitigate the effects of foreign turmoil on our shores, especially since, as Robert Gates, the former US Defence Secretary put it, development is “cheaper than sending soldiers”.
Britain was 2015’s global soft power leader and aid plays its part in that ranking. In one ITV report, a Somali woman expressed her gratitude for private UK aid. It is not unreasonable to imagine this reaction occurring globally, with Commission for Africa analysis suggesting that aid enhances Britain’s “stature” and “influence”. For Bill and Melinda Gates, meanwhile, aid “express[es] the highest values… the belief that the best investment any of us can ever make is in the lives of others”.
Britain’s demonstration of that value through our aid is surely not lost on the hearts and minds of the world’s poorest nor the judgement of history.
Aid is of course no silver bullet. Debt restructuring, good governance, and free trade liberate individuals from poverty, but trade and aid are not mutually exclusive. Aid works in our economic interest by facilitating the free-trading world Conservatives seek. It educates, provides healthcare, builds infrastructure, and stabilises nations. This helps create the economic conditions needed to achieve self-sufficiency, with Africa now registering the second highest regional economic growth rate.
As a Conservative, I believe government should create conditions for individuals to take control of their own destinies. This philosophy guides DfID’s Economic Development Strategy which helps nations “stand on their own two feet” and trade away the need for aid.
Strengthened economies means more lucrative export markets for British business and new producers offering UK consumers more choice, and the soft power generated by the reputational benefits of aid could facilitate post-Brexit trade deals by making populations more amenable to such negotiations.
Trade agreements, however, take time and don’t address immediate issues such as disaster relief. And when markets fail the neediest, aid intervenes. Without it, many vaccines would be unaffordable. As such, no inherent contradiction arises from advocating aid and free trade. ‘Trade or aid’ is a false choice.
The right thing
I am lucky that Britain was my birthplace. Many abroad were not so fortunate. It is an injustice that ailments treated over-the-counter here can be death sentences overseas. People should not simply be born to die.
Aid, admittedly, is not perfect. OECD rules constraining Hurricane Irma relief is a prime example. But, as Callahan and Stearns neatly summarise, aid “promotes our values, our prosperity and… security, all while providing a lifeline to the vulnerable”.
Conservatives should not be defensive, but proud that we kept our promise to the world’s poorest. In Cameron’s words, “that says something about this country”. Today’s disorder and migratory pressures expose the myth that we are immune to the consequences of problems abroad. By saving lives and investing astutely, Britain’s aid serves moral and patriotic ends.
Our Party must have compassion and the long-term national interest central to its vision for a Britain that is generous and global. Our aid policy does not derogate from these post-Brexit imperatives.