Outlook: Clare Short's crusade on aid

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The Independent Online
Tricky stuff, overseas aid. Always has been and by the look of yesterday's White Paper on international development - Eliminating World Poverty: A Challenge for the 21st Century - it seems destined to remain that way. In many respects this is a terrific document, filled with passion, moral indignation and a genuine, crusading approach to the cause of world improvement. In other words, there is quite a lot of Clare Short herself in this worthy and sometimes breathless tome. But does it advance the underlying case for overseas aid by very much? It's arguable either way.

Right-wing hard liners have long insisted that overseas aid is not only a waste of taxpayers' money, but most of the time is also a positively bad thing, discouraging enterprise in the developing world, encouraging unsustainable financial policies, propping up corrupt and dictatorial regimes, polluting the environment and generally doing a lot more harm than good. The evidence to support this view is legion. But it is not so overwhelming as to win the argument outright.

Furthermore, the Government's White Paper makes no attempt to defend the past record of overseas aid. Rather the reverse. It is strongly critical of aid for the purpose of geo-political influence and it commits the Government to abandoning the aid for trade policies of the past - ie we help finance a public works project and you place the orders with our companies. Both approaches it rightly condemns as economically flawed and politically incorrect.

Although the alleviation of poverty has always been the implicit policy goal of overseas aid, this has not always been apparent in the way aid is allocated. Ms Short tries to make it explicit. Sustainable development and livelihoods for the world's poor becomes the whole purpose of aid. Few people are going to quarrel with the vaguely political pre-conditions she does introduce, such as the Government's commitment to human rights and environmentally friendly development. Priority is also to be given in the allocation of aid "to the value of maintaining a sound fiscal balance and low inflation". Though Ms Short probably had to be shoe horned into including this stipulation, again this is pretty uncontentious stuff, even for the left, these days.

The document is also refreshingly honest in the way it makes its case for aid. There is no serious attempt to justify the giving of aid as economically valuable to Britain, except in so far as a richer world creates better trade opportunities. Rather, the purpose of aid is a moral one, to make us feel better about ourselves and to establish Britain as a world leader in compassion. Unfortunately, this may not be enough to persuade Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, to double Ms Short's overseas aid budget, for that is what she is after here.