Britain’s spending on foreign aid is inefficient, unaffordable and increasingly unjustifiable. We need a fundamental reset to reconsider our approach to the budget for international development and assess whether we’re really helping to develop a global economy we can be proud of.
As Britain makes its departure from the European Union, Britain’s spending on foreign aid will come into focus. Taxpayer contributions to international development is coming under increased scrutiny as the main parties wrestle with public resentment at the waste and inefficiency of the budget for the Department for International Development (DFID). But in the discussions that will take place, it may perhaps be pertinent to reconsider our contributions to foreign aid and examine the extent to which it generates real value-for-money to its recipients.
The UK is the second largest donor for foreign aid in the world. Since 1960 to 2008, and adjusting for inflation the UK has in total donated $417.65 billion USD. The budget for foreign aid in 2015 reached $18.7 billion or £12.23 billion, and estimated at current levels of growth foreign aid from the UK would reach £14.4 billion in 2021. This amount is equivalent to our commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on foreign aid – the target set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Within this budget, a percentage is given as multilateral aid to organisations like the UN, and a portion as bilateral aid donated directly to a country or aid programme to be spent as the donor nation sees fit.
The obvious question therefore, is this: What assurances does the British taxpayer have that this money is spent a) in the national interest, and b) as efficiently as possible? And it’s a question with a very open-ended answer. The UK secretary for DFID, Priti Patel, raised doubts as to the integrity of this budget when she warned last year that too much of Britain’s foreign aid is being “stolen or wasted on inappropriate projects”.
Over a third of the budget is given to multilateral organisations, organisations where the UK government and UK taxpayers have no say in the way the money is spent. What’s more, the UK still sends foreign aid to BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) which are undergoing a process of radical economic growth and development wholly without western intervention. So should we really be directing 0.7% of our tax expenditure to accelerate the growth of nations already outperforming our own year-on-year growth?
Grant Shapps – formerly second-in-command at DFID – recently criticised the tendency to “spend the cash, regardless of Britain’s other national objectives”. Why do countries like Pakistan, who received £351.4 million in 2015, receive substantial amounts of aid from the UK whilst allowing flagrant human rights abuses such as FGM and executions for apostasy? It seems each British taxpayer has become implicitly and unavoidably complicit in acts which run fundamentally contrary to our deepest held values of human rights and equality.
The next government must take the opportunity of the next 5 years to direct foreign aid to areas of urgent and absolute need and ensure proper accountability. In one sense, aid has held back the efforts of developing countries to invest in their own populations and national infrastructure. Their right to self-reliance has been denied them by their access to guaranteed foreign aid. One is forced to contemplate the number of corrupt regimes and self-destructive economies who have failed to lose their legitimacy as a result of western financial intervention.
Indeed, at a time of high public expenditure and of an ever increasing national debt, can it be considered right at all to borrow so we can simply give away? There can be no reason in burdening our children’s future with an increased national debt without very good cause. And I wonder whether in this instance they’re being given a deal that’s rather rotten.
Erik Solheim in 2014 raised the question for modernising aid, writing of a desire for the need of aid to be eradicated entirely. Right or wrong, the place to start is to recognise and protect those whose backs are broken to raise the DFID budget, with the accountability and transparency that it so urgently needs.