It’s a debate that’s been raging on in the background for the last few years especially after the EU referendum. Should we really be spending 0.7% of our GDP on our foreign aid budget which goes towards helping other nations whilst we have so many problems at home?
Only last summer, Esther McVey centred her bid to become prime minister around halving the foreign aid budget to fund her pledges for more police officers and resources for the NHS. If you go back to 2018, you will see Jacob Rees-Mogg posing in front of the cameras of Downing Street to present a petition of 100,000 Express Readers calling for the end of what they called the ‘foreign aid madness’.
The arguments against foreign aid are highly emotive - centring around the argument of ‘we must put our nation first’ and naturally stirs up a feeling that any money that goes to anything but one’s own country is not money worth spending. This argument is idealistic, simplistic, not realistic and does not acknowledge that well spent foreign aid is putting our country first and overlooks key points about what makes the 0.7% target so vital.
If you cast your minds back to 2014, a deadly disease called Ebola was spreading across Africa. The major economies of the world agreed to each take a country and use their foreign aid budget to help contain the outbreak before millions were victims of this deadly disease. Britain took Sierra Leone and the United States took Liberia.
As a result of David Cameron’s commitment to the 0.7% target, Britain was ready to lead the response and ended the outbreak in Sierra Leone on 17th March 2016, with the reported number of deaths being at 3,956. The outbreak in Liberia did not end until 9th June 2016 with the reported death toll being 4,809.
Millions could now get back on their feet, free from the threat of a disease that had torn through communities, killed families and destroyed infrastructure. If that is not a big enough argument for you to believe that foreign aid is a force for good, simply because ‘it isn’t our problem’ then I urge you to look at the impact on Britain had this disease spread further.
More Brits would’ve caught this disease, putting the entire population at risk and a tremendous strain on our doctors and nurses. So in a way, the foreign aid budget really did benefit the NHS in this instance.
But what opponents of the idea fail to acknowledge is that foreign aid is the perfect bridge between our domestic and foreign policies. Take a key priority of both Theresa May and Boris Johnson, the environment, for example. May made vital steps on the issue by making Britain the first major economy to legislate to becoming net zero.
But we must face up to the fact that the UK only contributes to about 2% of global emissions, and whilst the steps we are making on a domestic level are certainly credit worthy, we must be part of a global push to do so if we want to fulfil our environmental goals.
In order to do this, we must help developing nations cut down on their own emissions whilst allowing them to continue their vital development in a way that doesn’t generate huge emissions as they simply cannot afford to do this alone. If we are truly serious about using Brexit to become a more global nation, then we must use this opportunity.
However, I suspect that this will not be enough for opponents of the budget because, to many of them, the idea of reducing emissions from nations halfway around the world from us has absolutely no bearing on their life. They see it, quite understandably, as a priority that lies behind issues that they feel are more pressing on their lives.
It is this that makes it such a useful tool in the arsenal of those politicians that promise to cut or abolish the budget, despite having no idea about how aid actually works as shown by Esther McVey.
But what these politicians fail to convey is that foreign aid could be the key to solving an issue of particular importance to them and millions across the country, the number of immigrants and refugees entering the country. You will not solve the refugee crisis by telling people why they should not come to your country through threats such as ‘if you come here then you will be returned’ as many seek to do and is so often shown to not actually be the case.
The reason that you cannot do this is because contrary to what the Salvinis, Le Pens and Wilders of the world would have you believe, refugees or however you wish to label them are not people who willingly want to pack their lives up in the nations where they were born, raised and brought their children up and to make the treacherous journey in which many have been killed but because they feel they have no choice.
The way you solve the refugee crisis is by giving people a reason to stay in their home country and to do this then we need to work to remove the factors that push them away. These ‘push factors’ include no access to medical care, education and basic sanitation. If we actively engage with NGOs operating in these countries who are seeking to improve the living standards of residents there and empower local communities to start businesses, then we may very well see a vast reduction in the numbers of people fleeing from their homes. This way you can begin to contain the number of refugees in line with what many people want to see happen.
However, are many legitimate concerns with having such a large foreign aid budget and a primary concern is handing money to corrupt governments who then misspend aid as well as aid not actually hitting our targets. There is, however, a solution to this and that is to spend foreign aid through vetted NGOs whose aims align with the policies we are seeking to pursue. In doing this, you remove the need to hand money over to corrupt leaders, ensure money is well spent and achieve our aims and ensure that local communities around the world are the ones reaping the benefits.
If we are truly to make foreign aid a valuable tool, then we must ensure that it supports, and does not hinder, our foreign policy targets and that is why the move by the prime minister to put DFID under the responsibility of FCO is such an important step. Yet, we must also not be bound by arbitrary spending targets to look good and ensure that we spend the budget where necessary to avoid wasting taxpayer money on vanity projects.
The Government is promising a global Britain, in fact it was this very reason that so many including myself believe in Brexit. If we really want to be a global Britain then we must understand the importance of foreign aid.
It isn’t some ‘globalist agenda’ as some may insist it is but it’s a vital resource that allows us to help the least fortunate around the world, to tackle some of the biggest emergencies facing us, and help us pursue domestic policies – such as reducing the levels of immigration.
I hope to see Boris Johnson and the Government commit to continuing Britain's excellent record with foreign aid and to spend it in a way which ensures we actually spend the money on policies that matter. This way, we will make meaningful change around the world because that is what it means to be a global Britain.