Petition threatens to call British aid, and its place in the world, into question

A Pakistani man stands outside a U.K.-funded temporary shelter after flooding in Sindh. File 2012. (Credit: Magnus Wolfe-Murray/DFID Pakistan)

An online e-petition calling on the U.K. to scrap its 0.7 percent commitment to foreign aid has crossed the required threshold for parliamentary debate. The petition, started by right-leaning paper the Daily Mail and supported by more than 200,000 members of the British public has called on MPs to debate a motion to scrap aid in Parliament on June 13. Opposition to the debate has strongly mounted with the belief that U.K. aid’s proud record should be defended.

Even though the U.K. enshrined the 0.7 percent U.N. foreign aid target into law last year, a battle that was hard-fought by campaigners and politicians alike, aid skepticism is not a new phenomenon in the U.K. Last year, a YouGov poll found that 53 percent of Britons believe that aid should be cut, with many of those surveyed feeling that aid is ineffective. However, other interpretations of polls on British opinions on foreign aid have been more positive, so it is impossible to empirically measure public attitudes.

Often the debate conflates domestic political and economic issues, such as austerity and budget cuts, with international aid. The Department for International Development, along with the NHS, is ring-fenced from budget cuts under the Conservative government’s current austerity plans. With cuts to public expenditures on social welfare – from the disabled to the elderly – as well as rising inequality in the U.K. and growing child poverty, aid is often a target from parts of the general public as well as politicians.

“It is outrageous that at a time of national austerity … Mr. Cameron wishes to pick the pocket of our taxpayers to fund international aid projects,” said Paul Nuttall of the U.K. Independence Party in an article in the BBC in 2013. On British radio, a caller blamed her inability to receive medical treatment on the idea that funding has been “diverted” away from the NHS towards foreign aid.

The petition launched by the Daily Mail crossed the necessary threshold for Parliamentary debate.

The petition launched by the Daily Mail crossed the necessary threshold for Parliamentary debate.

Austerity is a political choice; it is not inevitable. Blaming the failure of the British government to provide adequate support domestically on funding international aid is as misguided as it is unfounded. Funding can, and often is, made available. It is not an issue that the money is not there, it is a matter of political choice. In the same way, anti-aid campaigners often forget this.

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Though of course there are a few issues with the U.K.’s aid policies, much the same as with any donor country, much of the anti-aid camp simply refuses to engage with some of the success stories that the country’s aid budget has supported. In some ways Department for International Development aid is incredibly efficient, and achieves much with a budget that, relative to the U.K.’s overall economic output, is marginal. For example, U.K. aid has helped more than 11 million children into primary school education, including 5.3 million girls. Elsewhere, through the Global Fund, it has given 13.2 million people access to vital tuberculosis treatment since 2002 and is proved to save lives. It has also provided clean water to around 63 million people around the world.

Recently, the Daily Mail was outraged to learn that our aid budget went up. This, however, ignored the simple math that, depending on economic growth, this 0.7 percent of our overall budget is worth more. This is testament to the theory that, if developed economies can grow, so, too, can developing nations through trade, business and so on.

Much of this rhetoric is, in part, as a result of the return of isolationist, nationalist policies, which can be seen throughout much of Eastern Europe at the moment, as well as the conservative right in the United States. Much of the debate about aid is really about Britain’s place in the world, with integrationists arguing that scrapping aid, as with leaving the EU, would compromise our role on the international stage.

Those calling for U.K. aid to be scrapped are most likely to also be those who back Britain leaving the EU during next month’s referendum. Just as the debate between whether we should or shouldn’t give aid is on a knife’s edge, so are the current referendum forecasts.

In February, a consortium of key figures from the U.K.’s biggest international charities, such as Oxfam, Save the Children and Christian Aid, signed a letter to the Guardian, arguing that “withdrawing from the EU would diminish the U.K.’s role in the world and set back our efforts to end global poverty.”

The group also argued that “every pound of aid the U.K. spends through EU institutions is matched by £6 from other member states.” As the U.K. cannot, for obvious reasons, fund every humanitarian crisis, committing aid to the European budget has a multiplying effect: “It also helps tackle problems in areas where the U.K. has no large presence, for example in the Sahel and parts of West Africa. EU aid complements activities that other aid agencies cannot undertake, like police and security missions in fragile hotspots,” the letter continued.

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If the U.K. were to decide to end its aid commitments, it would end its ability to convince other nations about the merits of committing to the 0.7 percent agreement. In the G7 the U.K. has stood alone in many respects. The United States, Japan and Italy are not even halfway to this commitment, while Britain’s aid spending has increased by 144 percent over the past decade. With the U.N. humanitarian funding crisis affecting responses across the world, it is a target that is more than collectively achievable. If Britain decides spending aid is against national priorities, we will see a knock-on effect.

In reaction to the petition, BOND – the umbrella organization for all registered British NGOs – as well as the Guardian, have started an online campaign to bring greater awareness of the progress that has been brought about through British aid. The #proudofaid hashtag has started trending on Twitter in order to counter the growing negative press. (Groups working to maintain the aid commitment include Results UK, where this writer works as a grassroots campaigner.)

Though this hashtag won’t put a halt to the growing levels of aid skepticism in the U.K., it is a reminder to the aid community in the U.K. about how far it had to come in order for the U.K. to ensure its commitments on supporting foreign aid. It is also part of the argument that the U.K. should not renege on its global commitments, whether this involves being an important trading partner within the EU, which in turn elevates our global trading status, or as a leader in the fight against global poverty.

Where some are right to decry the growing levels of poverty and inequality in Britain as deplorable and accuse us of hypocrisy in efforts to tackle global poverty, we should not chose to abandon our pledges and give up on improving the lives of millions in the Global South, as our records to date show.

Are you #proudofaid? Join the conversation on Twitter.

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About Author

Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at charlieensor1990@googlemail.com