Alexander Woolf is a Parliamentary Assistant to a Conservative MP.
You might be forgiven for assuming that international aid is a pretty benign and woolly area of policymaking, but the politics of ‘getting it right’ are quite slippery in the aid arena.
We are all aware of the controversies caused by overseas projects funded by UK governments in recent years: from Ethiopian dance troupes to Indian yoga classes, from Philippine eel protection to dementia care in booming China. I certainly don’t envy those whose job it is to point at the atlas in the Department for International Development (DfID) and bid taxpayer’s money bon voyage.
DfID just can’t win. It’s criticised for being reckless with public finances when it spends too much and tight and unimaginative when it fails to reach our commitment of 0.7 per cent of GNI towards overseas aid. I’m sure there are many people with their hands eagerly in the air barking suggestions for which Third World projects deserve the most support from the Government, and I guess I’m now one of them.
My suggestion is simple: if an aid surplus is looming in Q4, why not look closer to home for a suitable recipient? Rather than dishing out vast sums to NGOs, some of whom are facing questions over their legitimacy or effectiveness, why don’t we deputise our own young people to act as aid-givers in developing economies?
Each year, thousands of young people from the UK travel to regions of need to offer their assistance, whether it be teaching English to children, getting their hands dirty in agricultural projects, or helping to address housing needs. These are extremely worthwhile programmes.
Sadly, however, they’re not very inclusive. As I found during my own summer break from university, these fantastic opportunities to perform a duty for the world are restricted to rich kids who have the luxury of using their parents’ credit cards for purchasing the aeroplane tickets, food, board, and registrations fees necessary for volunteering overseas. Having the desire to donate your summer to help those less fortunate isn’t enough unless you have the financial backing to get you there.
Even the US Government’s flagship Peace Corps programme, which receives approximately $400 million in support, isn’t completely free, which is why the average age of its participants is 28 years old. As we all know, the door to taking trips abroad slowly closes the closer we get to working age.
The benefits of volunteering as opposed to spending the summer on Snapchat are obvious, so why not think more patriotically when awarding aid grants? If you care about global poverty and youth inclusion then a fresh, and relatively cheap, programme for gearing up our own young people for projects overseas is a win-win. Creating a new mission of young British helpers could have a profound effect both on our young people and our approach to aid.
Now means-testing such a policy to avoid simply funding middle class children’s gap year holidays would require a bureaucracy (and we all know how it ends when we create new quangos). One option is to delegate the awarding of the grant to our state schools, who would be then be free to select their most committed and deserving students who can discover the overseas volunteer experience otherwise off limits to people like them.
Failing this, the programme could in fact be handed over to the National Citizen Service which, in its current form, resembles little more than an expensive and political version the Duke of Edinburgh award.
With the correct oversight from the Government, we could ensure that overseas volunteering is neither about spending a month in the sun nor collecting altruistic photographs for our Facebook profiles, but about substantial aid work and opportunities to develop new skills in diverse and deprived regions. An ‘apprenticeship with a heart’ is exactly what the caring British youth are crying out for, and I’m sure the British economy would soon appreciate the tangible effects such a policy would have on our future workforce.
Not only would a grant for youth volunteer missions help to shape and utilise young citizens, but it would help us in our efforts to prove wrong those who suggest that Brexit is a symbol of our intention to recede from the world and abandon the commitments to global peace for which we are so well-renowned. The clean slate offered by our withdrawal from the EU presents us with an historic opportunity to think innovatively about our future public policy and how we, as a country, can use our soft powers to leave a positive British mark on global history – and what better tool to use than our own young people.
While it might have been an exaggeration by Republican Senator, Rand Paul, to suggest that 70 per cent of foreign aid money is skimmed off the top by corrupt regimes and NGO cartels, the problem is a very real one. By cutting out the middle men, perhaps we could ensure that taxpayer money is directly targeted towards the grassroots projects we all desperate hope are receiving it.
The logistics of such a policy certainly wouldn’t be coordinated overnight, but if we really want to prioritise social justice in our forward plan then helping our friends in DfID recognise the potential of our own hungry and compassionate young people surely couldn’t do any harm.