We need to rethink overseas aid

The idea that writing cheques in London with UK taxpayer’s money creates ‘international development’ is one of the Left’s most pernicious arguments. It assumes the UK has the capacity to understand other societies that have failed to develop as quickly as others and, through giving them a targeted hand-out, can create long lasting wealth. If you really think this, why call yourself a Conservative? It presumes a level of government expertise and power, and a lack of responsibility, that sits poorly with conservative (or even liberal) philosophy.

A Conservative agenda on aid should look very different (putting aside trade or the 0.7 per cent target for the moment). Penny Mordaunt should do what every Conservative Secretary of State promises, and make our aid budget fit for purpose. Every single one initially promises an end to waste, unconditional aid, and secrecy. But little changes. There have been improvements since 2010 – but small and incremental ones. Each Secretary of State is slowly smothered in the web of vested interests and veiled threats from self-interested groups.

Firstly, we should point out the Left and their allies have largely played an unhelpful role in perpetuating poverty in developing countries compared with capitalism and corporate investment. In Vietnam, absolute poverty – of the kind where people are barely surviving – fell from nearly 60 per cent in 1993 to just 13.5 per cent in 2014. Throughout most of this period, the Left in places like Vietnam was wailing and attacking Western ‘sweatshops’ – sweatshops which did more good in raising the people of Vietnam up from poverty than all the Western charities swarming over Sub-Saharan Africa.

On top of the help that Western companies and investment bring (which is ultimately what ends poverty),we should maintain our aid budget. Not least because it links to immigration pressures. The low variant UN projected population increase in Sub-Saharan Africa is 1.4 billion by 2060, meaning a population of 2.4 billion. Over the coming years and decades, leaky boats will keep crossing the Mediterranean, and pressure from the Left to simply throw open our borders will be a constant drumbeat despite the unsustainable pressures, both cultural and economic, this would bring. As these countries become richer, this pressure remains – as the work of academic Paul Collier shows, as absolute poverty falls, migration pressures do not decrease (and often increases) until a country is fairly rich. If a Minister claims making poorer nations richer will reduce illegal immigration, they do not understand their brief.

DfID should become the Department for Humanitarian Relief

The Department for International Development should become the Department for Humanitarian Relief and alter policies to match. The FCO and DfID are already working better together – and rightly so, as the FCO should be focusing on wider issues and DfID (or DfHR) on humanitarian relief. We cannot bring development to countries. They either develop or not, based largely on their own internal political and social structures. Moreover, with our aid now competing with China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ programme of over $1 trillion investment in developing countries, our influence is waning.

That shift should be followed with policy change. A primary focus of our overseas aid budget must be to support refugees around conflict zones and destabilised nations. To give Priti Patel credit, she fought to increase aid to countries such as Syria and its neighbours, despite some arguing money should not go to such ‘middle income’ nations (as if such statistics matter to people in refugee camps or in a war-torn economy). The most vulnerable refugees are almost always trapped in camps close to the conflict – and helping them is the right alternative to encouraging traffickers and illegally entering Europe.

Secondly, we should focus on population growth itself. The higher UN population estimate is that Sub-Saharan Africa’s population will reach 2.8 billion by 2060 and 5.2 billion by 2100 (growing fivefold). Yet the UN finds 25 per cent of women in Sub-Saharan Africa and 222 million women globally want but cannot access contraception. There are 50 million unwanted pregnancies each year globally, and even more tragically, 330,000 women die annually from them.

The UN estimates universal contraceptive access for those who want it would cost around $5.3 billion a year, or under £3 billion. DfID spending alone (excluding other aid) will rise toward £14 billion by 2020. The UK should unilaterally commit to providing universal contraceptive access by 2020. We have doubled spending here – but only to £225 million a year, a shockingly low amount.

This would reduce the numbers of jobs that places like Sub-Saharan Africa must create by hundreds of millions (when there is already chronic unemployment) and allow greater investment in education. It would also reduce the risk of war and strife. Between 1970 and 1999, 80 per cent of civil conflicts occurred in countries where 60 per cent or more of the population were under 30. This pattern has continued into the 21st century.

Thirdly, of course we should continue to support disaster relief and conflict zones more broadly. But, given what appears to have been an open secret in terms of some aid staff abusing their position, we need to have a clearer line of accountability in each disaster and area, with a greater opportunity for whistleblowing and civil servants held accountable if this goes wrong in their area – perhaps an assessment on how we are protecting the vulnerable immediately after a crisis concludes, or if ongoing, each year we engage, would be useful here.

Fourthly, we should support basic human rights in countries. Essential religious freedoms, LGBT people not being criminialised, women being free from genital mutilation: we can make a difference, particularly by supporting local groups and local people brave enough to fight for basic rights within their culture. Not playing gesture politics by trying to force through gay marriage or obsessing about the gender pay gap in desperately poor nations, but focusing on the basic human rights that no one should be denied. And again, by helping people obtain these rights, we can reduce the need and moral argument for people entering this country (usually illegally) to claim asylum.

At a time when austerity continues, we need to be explain that we are not wasting taxpayers’ money on a grand delusion that we are responsible for, or can create, international development. The points above set a clear narrative that focuses on what we can actually achieve, and would also give us a compassionate – but, unlike Angela Merkel or Jeremy Corbyn – realistic answer to one of the ongoing biggest issues of our century – the ongoing refugee and illegal immigration crisis. Mordaunt has a major opportunity. Having shown already she is prepared to stand up for what she believes in, by setting out a genuine Conservative agenda in this area, she can become a leading Cabinet figure. Or we can yet again see the pattern of past Secretaries of State repeat – promises of initial change watering down to limited improvement.

95 comments for: Alex Morton: It’s time to turn the Department for International Development into a Department for Humanitarian Relief

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