This morning’s newslinks report that David Cameron, spurred by the FIFA corruption scandal, plans to launch an investigation into how at least £12bn of British aid spending is disbursed.
This follows claims that programmes designed to combat poverty and illness are in reality subsidising third world defence budgets, as recipient governments offset spending from their own social programmes.
Last month, whistleblowers (who claim the Prime Minister urged them not to go public) revealed how a hapless Department for International Development had been hijacked by the ‘poverty barons’: ruthless private consultants who, it is alleged, dominate the “aid industry”.
All the above examples are simply recent manifestations of a longer-running complaint: that too often when it comes to aid the mere fact of spending money seems to be more important than how it is spent, especially when huge budget increases leave DfID scrambling to get cash out of the door.
This gives the impression that ring-fencing the foreign aid budget was, at least in large part, an act of ‘values signalling’ on the part of the Government, as much as a hard-headed commitment to Britain’s charitable efforts overseas.
Values signalling describes a phenomenon where an individual or organisation substitutes self-consciously virtuous public posturing over practical efforts to improve the common good. Another example would be celebrities, such as Russell Brand and Charlotte Church, who demand hard-left policies but elect, until that red dawn, to hold on to their fortunes.
One of the right’s major criticisms of the British left is that it so often attempts to substitute good intentions and high spending for actual achievement. The Government should not allow itself to fall into the same trap.
Foreign aid can transform lives and achieve great things, but if we’ve learned anything from picking up after Gordon Brown it must be that we should only spend money where we can spend it effectively. A hard-headed review of our aid commitments need not be hard-hearted, and is overdue.