Why Do We Give Foreign Aid?

Posted on February 17, 2017

When a blog post about the starvation of the NHS or lack of funding for the elderly comes up, it inevitably goes down a line where at some point, the amount of money Britain sends in foreign aid comes up in the conversation.

The tabloids can’t get enough of it. They specifically pick out examples of waste to make readers fizz with anger, which is a brilliant diversion tactic from media moguls who avoid tax as a hobby and will do anything to deflect anger away from themselves. Murdoch, Dacre and Desmond all campaign against foreign aid and they all avoid taxation; their concept of morality is at best, bizarre.

It is also oft alleged that foreign aid budgets are invented by some dungaree wearing, soppy liberal metropolitan luvvie. However, the fact is, in recent years every government, regardless of colour, has maintained the commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP (£12 billion) a year on foreign aid.

It’s really easy to be a soppy metropolitan luvvie these days, all you have to do is admit to be a remain voter and show smidgen of sympathy to a dead three year old boy on a Greek beach and you are in business. In the good old days you had to to attend Islington dinner parties with Cherie Blair to receive this status, but I am living proof that with one single ‘Like’ of a Gary Lineker tweet, you can do it from a modest three bedroom house in the backwaters of Hampshire.

Anyway, Foreign Aid is not popular, so there must be a good reason behind it that we never hear about, otherwise they wouldn’t do it. Unlike the tabloid press, the British government’s don’t have a “Let’s Wind up the Masses” budget, so it is probably more likely that the purpose of foreign aid is to maintain a moral high ground and build relationships around the globe.


Who else contributes as much as the UK in terms of GDP?

Well, according to a report in The Independent, only five other countries, the Netherlands, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden met or exceeded the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target in 2015.

Our donation of £12 billion was the second largest in the world with the US topping the table with £22.5bn. However, this makes up only 0.17 per cent of the US income and you don’t need to be Inspector Morse to have a hunch that under Trump, this figure will decrease dramatically.
With regards to percentages, Sweden were miles ahead of the rest, contributing 1.7% of their income to the foreign aid budget.

Where does the cash go to?

According to official data, over 40% of the money goes to multilateral organisations like the UN. The remainder goes to what is known as ‘bilateral aid’. These are mainly developing countries, with Africa being the biggest beneficiary.

Ethiopia received the most money (£334m) with projects in war-torn states, such as Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Syria, given £200 million plus.

What is Foreign Aid spent on?

According to the Department for International Development, the money spent included helping nine million children into primary schools and the immunisation of over 55 million infants to combat preventable diseases.

Positive department examples of aid include a grant of £724,500 given to Medical Aid for Palestinians, delivering trauma support and plastic reconstructive surgery for those injured in the Gaza conflict, and £230m provided to fight the spread of Ebola. In my book, combatting Ebola was definitely money well spent, unless of course you have a perversion for shitting yourself transparent before throwing up so hard, your eyeballs pop out.

The government has also spent £900m on helping some of the four million refugees who have fled Syria since the war began. Most of this money went to refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The majority of the funds were used for basic supplies such as water, food, medicine and shelter. It is widely thought that by helping these people and offering them assistance, the chances of them becoming friend rather than foe, are greatly enhanced.

Why so controversial?

The biggest and most understandable rant comes from those critical of aid being given to such countries as India and Pakistan, with the headline story being their ability to fund space programmes. There is also growing resentment from those who believe that the money spent overseas is desperately needed at home.

Much of the resentment has been driven by a series of exposes in The Times newspaper, revealing that the government is spending up to a £1bn a year from the foreign aid budget on consultancies. The Times alleged that one consultant was paid £23,000 to pen a “two-page policy brief”. If that is not enough to make you angry enough forget how much Times owner, Rupert Murdoch, avoids in tax, I don’t know what is.

Has government policy shifted?

David Cameron, who suddenly looks like a socialist, was a big fan of maintaining foreign aid at the 0.7% commitment, Theresa May, it would appear, isn’t. She (May) has stated that the government would be reviewing the commitment and if the Tories win the 2020 election it could well be scrapped.

At the time of writing, Theresa May would need to be caught in a threesome including Tony Blair and Diane Abbott to turn the tide on a Tory landslide, however, three years is a long time in politics, so, if the last year is anything to go by, don’t be surprised if you see Ken Dodd walking into 10 Downing Street in 2020.

Ultimately, when that amount of money is pledged by any government, there is always waste somewhere down the line that infuriates us (just sit back and watch the cost of Trident and Hinkley unfold). What we really need to assess is whether 0.7% of GDP is worth committing to aid projects abroad.

On balance, I would say that building, maintaining and enhancing relationships with other countries has to be worthwhile, both from a security and fiscal point of view. If you can help a country overcome disease, war or famine, as that country develops, you are going to be sat in pole position for future trading arrangements, which post EU, could come in handy.

But what do I know? I’m a loony leftie metropolitan freak who inadvertently liked one of Gary Lineker’s tweets and got found out. It was an act that in my dystopian nightmares, is an offence that will be punished by public execution whilst holding up a piece of card saying ‘ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!’.

Have a nice weekend!

2 Replies to "Why Do We Give Foreign Aid?"

  • Karen
    February 17, 2017 (5:58 pm)

    We have a moral, ethical and general commitment to give it. 0.7% is so little!
    How would city bankers like it if their ‘bonus’ was capped at that rate.

    The NHS is underfund but there are other ways than cutting aid.

    What kind of society want us to be?!? Grrrrr

  • Trevor
    February 24, 2017 (2:59 am)

    Cool article Bob.

    It’s something I’ve always pondered as well, and like you say something the media are not always keen to explain or outline. Usually it’s just Farage et al talking about giving money to ‘Bongo Bongo land’ which gets cut through with the masses.

    I’ve always thought a key aspect to foreign aid is security. If aid money is spent eliminating prospects of radicalisation in foreign schools then in my book that’s money well spent. I’d rather give $$$ to prevent or reduce terrorism happening.

    The idea of poverty leading to terrorism though is a tricky line to draw as often (and I’m sure there’s research that both proves and disproves it) I’ve read stuff that says your average suicide bomber is usually better educated and wealthier than the people around them.

    A great ABC article I read said that the difficulty with aid is that it often falls in a spectrum between being ‘strategic’ at one end or ‘nice’ at the other. The problem with either argument is that it can be easily cut. Australia funds a lot of the pacific with aid which buys the country favour with Papua New Guinea for example, but who can say that a government can’t figure out a new ‘strategy’ that allows them to gain favour but at the same time cut aid. The ‘nice’ argument is also a tricky one as in a budget emergency it’s easy to say that a country can’t afford ‘nice’ things.

    Australia by comparison to the UK gives 0.2% (and recently stripped a few billion out of aid to pay for new roads). Aid here is very much seen as a ‘nice’ thing and the conservative government in power has forged much closer links between trade and aid rather than supporting countries with aid that they can’t necessarily make trade agreements with.

    I guess the difficulty is always going to be tangible evidence of benefit to the country giving the aid. I suppose that’s why it’s always in the firing line. I agree though as a wealthy, educated democratic society we have a basic duty to give aid and give generously.

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