Let’s be honest, UK overseas aid is getting a bit of a battering right now. And it’s coming from all sides, from MPs, from the mainstream media (we’re looking at you Daily Mail), from the public.
But Conservative MP Nick Herbert has just made a ridiculously compelling argument for exactly why UK aid is so important, and why we need to keep fighting to protect it.
Herbert, the former minister for policing and criminal justice, and current MP for Arundel, is on a mission to convince everyone (including his own party colleagues) that aid is changing the world for the better.
“Conservatives are rightly sceptical of government intervention and spending taxpayer money except where it is necessary,” he wrote in an article for ConservativeHome.
“So let’s be clear,” he added, “to help the very poorest in the world, international aid is essential.”
Herbert chairs the Project for Modern Democracy, which is funded by the Gates Foundation, a partner of Global Citizen’s, and which released a report on Friday examining the impact that UK aid is really having globally.
The report surveys 50 years of academic research, creating a 100-page analysis showing that, overall, aid helps to increase economic growth and reduce poverty.
Nick Herbert: The question isn’t whether aid works. It does. The question is how it can work better. | Conservative Home https://t.co/UOWwCCLxYL— p4md (@project4md) December 1, 2017
“Yes, a few studies find little correlation between aid and economic growth or poverty rates. Yes, some aid initiatives fail. And yes, aid interventions can have unintended consequences, some of which can be negative,” he said.
“However,” he continued, “the clear majority of studies show that aid has a long-term, positive effect on a wide range of development-related indicators.”
Herbert said that while aid “can never be the main driver of development”, it can help to create the conditions for growth — stabilising countries ravaged by conflict, for example; helping to make people healthy so they can work; and strengthening the rule of law and democratic institutions.
“This doesn’t just take humanitarian relief, which even the most sceptical concede should be maintained,” he added. “It means development aid which critics relentlessly attack.”
The report comes at a time of intense pressure on the government to slash aid spending, with critics holding up cases of the ineffectiveness of spending as a reason to cut the foreign aid budget — which is 0.7% of the UK’s gross national income (GNI), around £13 billion annually.
But Herbert completely rejects, and cites evidence to prove it in the report, that aid has slowed growth and made the poor poorer.
“Aid faces growing pressures,” said Herbert. “Wealthy Western governments have been cutting back aid programmes, and there have been blistering tabloid attacks on Britain’s aid spending.”
“The current cross-party consensus that Britain should remain one of the few countries that meet the UN’s 0.7% aid target is holding, but is vociferously challenged on the right.”
According to Herbert, recent estimates indicate that even modest amounts of aid spending can add as much as 1.5% to a recipient country’s annual growth — to put that in perspective, that’s greater than the UK’s forecast growth for each of the next five years.
One study used in the report suggests that the average developing country would be 30% poorer today, had aid not been given over the past 50 years.
But the report doesn’t shy away from “where aid has problems.”
Herbert cites situations where a lack of coordination between aid agencies harms effectiveness; and examines the issue of corruption — so often held up by critics as a reason to slash overseas aid spending.
“Aid can help to reduce corruption, which is often more a symptom than a cause of poverty,” he wrote. “It is one of the paradoxes of aid that it is hardest to deliver in the countries where it is most needed.”
He goes on to describe a visit to Lebanon last year, where he saw the effectiveness of British support in securing the border with Syria to keep ISIS out and to help deal with the refugee crisis, highlighting it as a way that overseas development spending doesn’t just support people in the recipient country, but around the world.
The UK government has committed to maintaining aid spending at 0.7% of GNI — it’s enshrined in UK law.
Herbert agreed that the concerns are not unreasonable, “when we are still running a budget deficit”, but he added: “Critics should stop pretending that every problem with public services could be solved by cutting the aid budget.”
“Rather than impaling ourselves on a debate about a globally-agreed aid target,” he wrote, “we should do more to promote the good which aid spending and this Conservative government are doing. By all means let’s make sure that aid is spent well, but it’s time to junk the cheap and groundless shots about aid being a waste of money or failing to help those most in need.”
“The question today is not whether aid works,” he added, “but how it can work better. Evidence shows that aid is a powerful force for good in the world, and has unquestionably saved or transformed millions of lives.”
Penny Mordaunt, the UK’s international development secretary, has also used her new role to express her belief in the importance and effectiveness of foreign aid.
“I believe in aid,” she said, after taking the job last month. “I believe in the power it has to end disease, hunger, and extreme poverty, to build strong economies and to help the world’s most vulnerable people live lives of dignity. Aid also allows us to influence and shape the world around us.”
Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the UN’s Global Goals and put an end to extreme poverty by 2030, and we believe overseas development spending is a vital tool in this fight. You can join us by taking action here.