Viewpoints: Should foreign aid be spent at home?

  • 6 September 2013
  • From the section UK
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A man holds a sign saying "Austerity that's enough"

Prime Minister David Cameron has vowed that the UK will "lead the world" in humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees. At a time of economic austerity, should foreign aid be spent at home?

Earlier this summer the G8 accountability report showed the UK already spends more money on foreign aid, as a percentage of Gross National Income (GNI), than any other G8 country.

In June the UK pledged to give an extra £375m to help feed the world's poorest children.

And on Friday Mr Cameron pledged a further £52m in UK aid for victims of the civil war in Syria, taking the UK's total spending on aid for Syria and neighbouring states to £400m.

But at a time of economic austerity domestically, should taxpayer-funded foreign aid be spent at home? Below are a range of viewpoints on the issue.

Jonathan Foreman, senior research fellow at Civitas

The aid industry's PR machine likes to pretend that aid is a simple, all-or-nothing matter. If you criticise Britain's huge, mismanaged aid budget then you are arguing against all aid and you clearly don't care if children die.

The truth is very different. Less than a 10th of Britain's £12bn aid budget goes into humanitarian or emergency aid - the life-saving stuff you see in brochures - and the Department for International Development (DfID) has problems spending that. Most British aid is actually development aid of dubious effectiveness, too much of which goes to inefficient and wasteful multilateral organizations or gets paid directly into the treasuries of the corrupt or incompetent governments.

For lobbyists, aid is all about intentions rather than effect, to be visibly doing something regardless of whether it really helps.

Billions that could be paying for medical operations, nurses, police and other forms of public welfare in the UK are essentially tossed into a void by the one government agency that has not had to become more efficient or make budget cuts.

This shows contempt not just for British taxpayers - who are among the world's most generous donors to private charity - but also for the purported beneficiaries of British aid.

Britain should of course respond to humanitarian crises in the world, like the waves of Syrians refugees, or natural disasters like the Asian Tsunami. But that response should not just be a matter of boosting the overall aid budget or of handing more money to institutions that we know are likely to steal it, waste it or give it to the wrong people.

Jonathan Tanner, of the Overseas Development Institute

It is simply not the case that we are prioritising poor people abroad over poor people at home.

A quick look at the numbers shows that for every £10 we spend as a country we spend 16p on international aid.

When you add it up we spend less in a year on aid than we do on fizzy drinks.

When it is used to help the poorest people in the world that money goes a very long way. We help send around five million children to school every day through aid and aid saves lives - not least through vaccines.

Critics claim that aid is wasted, inefficient and counter-productive. Aid isn't perfect but politicians have taken strong steps to ensure we get results. We now have an independent aid watchdog that produces regular reports on whether the effectiveness of aid spending puts pressure on decision makers to get things right.

The Syrian situation shows why aid is so important. Governments are currently unable to agree an effective solution to an abhorrent situation that has caused millions to flee their homes. Whilst the deadlock persists, aid workers are busy getting food, shelter and medical care to those that have nowhere else to turn.

Aid is a tiny investment, but to millions of people it makes a massive difference.

Matthew Sinclair, Chief Executive of the Taxpayers' Alliance

There are people in awful poverty around the world and we should all do what we can, when we can, to help. But thanks to grandstanding politicians, we now have an aid policy judged by how much we spend, not by what that money delivers.

The government are chasing an artificial target based on numbers 40 years out of date. That is driving them to give our money to countries that could finance the projects themselves, corrupt or even dangerous foreign governments, and big charities that waste an enormous amount before the cash even reaches frontline projects.

At the same time tariffs and regulations stop the trade that should give those countries a chance to stand on their own two feet. EU rules encourage countries to just sell raw materials rather than developing their own industries.

The increase in the foreign aid budget is equivalent to well over £100 a year for every family in Britain. There is no reason at all why the budget should not be frozen at the level when the government came to power. That would still allow us to help people in other countries facing immediate crises and it would ease the pressure here at home.

If people want to give more they can write their own cheque to a good cause of their own choosing. They don't need politicians to do so on their behalf. There is nothing generous about giving away other people's money.

Justine Greening MP, Secretary of State for International Development

Just as you can't ignore what's happening in your own neighbourhood, as a country Britain can't ignore what happens around the world, because it affects us more now than ever before.

The UN announced this week that more than two million people have fled fighting in Syria and Britain is right to help neighbouring countries cope with this unprecedented influx of civilians. The events in Syria are a powerful reminder that no country can develop when it is engaged in conflict.

We are focusing an increasing proportion of our development spending in fragile and conflict-affected states including Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. We have a simple choice: either we help countries to deal with conflict and lawlessness or we do nothing and face a future dealing with them here at home.

Of course it's vital that every pound of taxpayer money is spent in the right way, in the right places, and on the right things, and that is why I am leading the drive for greater transparency and value for money both within my department and across the donor community.

Well-targeted and transparent international development can create jobs, increase tax collection and support a sustainable public sector. It is about ending aid dependency - in the end, that is the only sustainable route out of poverty.

And it is very much in our national interest to help build a more peaceful and stable world where Britain can help build and develop new markets and trading partners. We can either seek to shape the world that we want, or sit back and watch while others dictate Britain's fate.

Paul Nuttall MEP, Deputy Leader of the UK Independence Party

It is outrageous that at a time of national austerity, in order to salve his own flabby conscience, Mr Cameron not only wishes to go to war but wishes to pick the pocket of our taxpayers to fund international aid projects.

We believe very much that Britain should take its international responsibilities when it comes to humanitarian aid and efforts.

We have masses of experience, knowledge and capability in this field - both governmental and non-governmental - and we should be proud of it.

However, when it comes to development aid, the forensic accountancy over the last few years - both over direct Dfid aid and in the repackaged UK aid through the European Union - has shown itself time and time again to be misspent and generally counterproductive.

It would be far better for us to take our responsibilities and ambitions as a trading nation and open our borders to Syria's free trade, which of course would entail us leaving the EU, which creates tariff barrier after tariff barrier against so many countries that need our help.

Kitty Arie, Director of Advocacy at Save the Children

British aid works.

Last year saw the biggest ever fall in child deaths from preventable illnesses such as pneumonia and diarrhoea, largely driven by aid investments in vaccines and health. Since 1990 we've cut the number of children dying unnecessary deaths almost in half, from 12 million a year to 6.9 million.

Aid has also contributed to improving education, health, sanitation and other public services that sustain a developing economy and add to global growth.

Helping the world's poorest is in our DNA - think of the donations made to humanitarian crises and for events like Comic Relief. Of course, with this generosity comes a responsibility to ensure that money is spent as effectively as possible.

That, rather than cutting aid, is the right approach. A reduction in aid spending would be disastrous, not just for Britain's standing in the world, but for the children whose lives are being transformed by it.

We are working towards an achievement of historical proportions, ending the scandal of children dying just because they are born poor. Ours could be the generation that stamps out extreme poverty. That's a use of taxpayers' money that everyone can be proud of.

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