Rio Summit New Statesman
The pros and cons of foreign aid have been subject to endless debate and it is difficult to engage in this without becoming mired in cliché and turning it into a shouting match. Newspaper front pages scream about the UK aid budget, while committed humanitarians fire back and dig in.
It is right and proper to debate such an important issue, especially at a time of economic hardship; but before tackling the practicalities and politics of aid we should take a step back and look at exactly what we are committing to.
Many believe as I do that providing long-term development aid is the moral thing to do. But we should also recognise that it is, from a practical point of view, the right thing to do.
The Jubilee celebrations sparked a wave of national pride and properly so. But one of the reasons we are ‘Great’ Britain is because of the international moral leadership we have shown on foreign aid. You know the quality of a country by its ability to help the most disadvantaged, and the Government is entirely right in saying that we shouldn’t balance our books on the backs of the poorest in the world. Compassion is part of the quality of a nation and I am very proud of the current commitment to meet our aid targets at a time of economic hardship at home.
The moral argument is clear. But there is also enlightened self-interest here.
People think armies give leadership and that guns and bombs supply power. They recognise less that our aid policy also increases our international influence. On my last visit to the UN in New York, the Secretary General went out of his way to stress the number of times he used Britain’s example to encourage other countries to fulfil their promises on aid, as we have done. ‘You have set the agenda’, he said, ‘and this has given your country great influence’.
At a time when the world order is changing dramatically with the rise of China, India and Brazil, the soft power and influence that a strong moral position on aid gives Britain should not be underestimated.
Critics of development aid are right however to attack aid that creates dependency. As the President of UNICEF UK and a politician I know that foreign aid needs to be a hand-up not a hand-out. In the long-term it needs to help develop trade and economies and help give people the opportunity to stand on their own two feet.
I have recently returned from Liberia where I saw just this type of aid in action. A population of just 4 million still bears the scars of a country where a vicious war has raged. UNICEF funds a remarkable cash transfer scheme for child headed households, which has so far helped 2,000 children. The agency gives out $60,000 a month in total, which equates to $25 a month for the most vulnerable children.
In families benefiting from the scheme, 97% took their child to a health centre when they were ill, 90% had increased food security and children in participating families were 2/3 less likely to be involved in child labour than children in similarly poor households.
Undoubtedly of course, Aid can only work in the long-term with good governance. If I could do one thing to support this it would be to create a new agency called ‘Auditors sans frontiéres – have double-entry ledger will travel!’ In my time in Bosnia I saw how accountants can get at corruption and root it out, putting in place the framework for accountable, open government. Leaders like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia need to be supported and the UK has a role in promoting good governance as part of its foreign aid programme.
But, development is working and aid has played a huge part in that. Globally, compared to 20 years ago 4 million less children will die this year, 3 million children have got the chance to go to school for the first time and 4 million more people have access to live saving drugs for HIV/AIDS.
Moreover, the right type of development aid does not only help countries grow and give children a better future but is also hugely important in helping to prevent great humanitarian crises. In the future, poverty and lack of access to resources will be one of the greatest drivers for conflict. Aid which lifts countries out of hopelessness and poverty is one of the best ways to prevent the conflicts of the future. If you think aid is expensive, just try war as an alternative. One of the things that has always puzzled me is why we are prepared to spend so much on fighting wars and yet so little on taking the steps that would have prevented them in the first place.
Last year is estimated to have been the most expensive year ever when it came to clearing up after disasters. Predictions show that the scale, frequency and severity of rapid onset humanitarian disasters will continue to grow in the coming years, and at an accelerating pace. And, as the Stern review noted, if climate change goes unchecked it could cause between an additional 60,000 and 250,000 child deaths in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa alone.
Helping children prepare and adapt for climate change needs to be a major focus so we can prevent floods, droughts and hurricanes damaging the lives of children in some of the world’s poorest countries.
The best way to cope with future disasters is to use aid to build resilience in the countries which are most vulnerable. Acting ahead of the catastrophe, rather than responding to it afterwards – being ahead of events, not always trailing along behind them with emergency relief.
Aid isn’t perfect but neither are governments or people. Our moral stand on foreign aid is the right one for vulnerable children, the global economy and for shaping the type of world we want to live in. But in a world which is growing increasingly turbulent, increasingly interconnected and increasingly violent, helping others to break out of the cycle of poverty disease and hopelessness, is not only morally right, it is also in our own enlightened self-interest.