A moral imperative to help the poor

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The Independent Online
An example of how not to cut taxes is the Government's apparent plans for the overseas aid budget. There should be no doubting just how great will be the suffering if plans leaked at the weekend go ahead.

According to aid officials, the budget is to be cut by 12 per cent overall, double the figure that other government departments are said to be facing. The impact, however, will be far greater than that figure implies. Because our commitments to multilateral bodies such as the World Bank and European Union's development fund are fixed, the entire burden of the cuts will fall on the bilateral budget, the direct aid Britain gives to individual countries. Some African countries may be cut off entirely. Fifty per cent cuts in emergency aid are said to have been earmarked for places like Rwanda.

Yet the section of the budget to be hit so savagely is precisely the part which - until now - the Government has been proud to proclaim as most effective. Over the past decade, the quality of bilateral aid has improved enormously. Even those in the aid agencies who have been critical of the fall in the quantity of aid (from 0.51 per cent of the GDP in 1979 compared to 0.31 per cent today) will acknowledge that. Such projects have proved more efficient at reaching the poorest than the cash funnelled through Europe, the World Bank and the United Nations with their higher levels of bureaucracy, political correctness and penchant for grandiose projects.

Some 80 per cent of our bilateral aid - which once went on massive dams and power stations - is now directed towards the poorest. And it goes, increasingly, not just on health and education but in developing projects which help the poor to stand on their own feet. A small business programme in Tanzania, for example, boosted local exports by $400,000 last year and helped pay for a range of community development schemes. Such achievements give the lie to Tory backbench claims at the weekend that aid has done nothing to build capitalism or democracy. That is precisely what the best aid is doing, though it is a long, slow process.

With the globalisation of the international economy, such aid becomes more, not less, important. For the flows of investment which fuel that globalisation will always bypass the poorest who do not yet have the basic skills to attract investors. Aid performs a crucial role in building those skills.

Just as importantly, in a world in which a billion people go to bed hungry, and in which 250,000 children die every week from easily preventable diseases, there is a moral imperative upon those of us who are comparatively wealthy to help those who are so abjectly poor. As the Chancellor balances his ledgers for the November Budget, he should resist any temptation to clobber the world's poorest.