On foreign aid, the Coalition is a shambles

They have let public concerns grow and operational standards fall. We need change

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The Independent Online

The recent onslaught on UK foreign aid has occurred in a vacuum caused by a Tory led Government which has failed to make the case for aid and explain the nature of our support for development in a rapidly changing and complex world. 

At a time of austerity, it is understandable that the UK public should question increases to the aid budget when they are feeling the effects of swinging cuts at home. This is especially so when it is suggested that most or all of our aid is being siphoned off by corrupt dictators or spent in countries which should be left to fend for themselves.

However, we are not hearing about the positive impact of aid and development. It's time we had a much more open dialogue with the British public about what we are doing and what we are trying to achieve. Public support is not a "nice to have" but absolutely essential to the future integrity of our development work. We should be confident in making our case but also show humility and accept the system is far from perfect.   

Foreign aid is a risky business. We are working in some of the world's most fragile countries which have been plagued by violence for decades. Others have a limited capacity to deliver change due to a shortage of skills and poor organisational systems at every level of government and society. Some suffer endemic corruption which hurts the poorest the most. Even those countries that have made tremendous advances and are now categorised as middle income struggle with disproportionate levels of poverty. In all countries we do not shoulder the burden alone but work alongside and frequently via other donors and global organisations such as the EU, UN, World Bank and IMF. 

Our aid programmes are varied. We invest large amounts in bed nets which help to fight malaria, vaccines which keep children healthy and medicines which keep HIV/AIDS victims alive. We help to build hospitals, community health clinics and schools. We contribute to the training and salaries of the nurses, doctors and teachers who work on the frontline often in very challenges circumstances with poor equipment and inadequate staffing levels. When disaster strikes with often horrendous humanitarian consequences we should be proud that our country is usually amongst the first to respond with basics like food, blankets and shelter.

Long term

Equally as important is the support we provide to countries to help achieve long-term transformational change. We fund technical expertise to help countries build effective and accountable Government departments, essential to deploying limited resources effectively and ensuring people have access to basics services. Successive UK Governments have supported the development of revenue authorities with the capacity to collect personal and business taxes and ultimately reduce countries’ dependency on aid. 

UK aid also funds initiatives which support the growth of small businesses to create jobs and ensure people have decent livelihoods.  We help to train and develop civil society organisations which can play a crucial role in holding Governments to account and ensuring the voice of the poorest is heard. And we support some initiatives which seek to strengthen the rights and roles of women in countries where they experience violence and discrimination. This is essential because improving the rights of women is often central to a country's prospects for moving forward in a positive way.  

Labour supports the Government’s commitment to spend less than one penny in every pound on overseas development. However, we deplore their failure to address legitimate public concern and have growing concerns about the performance of DfID under their leadership. Taxpayers have a right to know that their money is being spent prudently and helping to achieve lasting change for the people who need it most. 

They also deserve a Government that will level with them about the risks and the challenging nature of the work which means things will not always work out as expected. Recent revelations about UK aid falling into the hands of al-Shabaab, the main terrorist organisation in Somalia, is a case in point. The same applies to corruption and human rights abuses. We should not pretend we will ever be able to totally eliminate risk, but the time has certainly come to insist that when giving UK support directly to another Government we will no longer turn a "blind eye" to conduct which breaches acceptable global standards. We need assurances about lessons learned and the processes that have been introduced to reduce future risks.

Prior to the election the Tories claimed they would improve the results achieved through UK aid spending. Instead, the evidence shows the performance of our aid programmes has deteriorated on their watch. They also promised a major shift of DfID spending to the private sector. However, they have been unable to account for this spending or explain what criteria has been applied to grants and results so far. In response to growing concern at the performance and remuneration of large private contractors used to manage many of DfID’s projects Justine Greening commissioned a report into their activities but has repeatedly refused to publish its findings.

Shambles

The Government’s policy on middle income countries is a shambles. Having sought cheap headlines by ending aid to India and South Africa they are increasing aid to countries like Nigeria and Pakistan. They are not applying objective criteria to where and how we provide aid nor explaining to an understandably sceptical public that 75 per cent of the world's poor now live in middle income not poor countries. Those who suggest that these countries should be required to take total responsibility for eliminating their domestic poverty fail to take into account the scale of the challenge they face or that notwithstanding their progress they are still a long way from the relative wealth of developed countries.

Aid will remain essential for the time being, but aid alone will not be enough.  If we are to be the generation which ends extreme poverty, reduces inequality and ends aid dependency there is a need to deliver big global reform on sustainable growth, trade, taxation and climate change adaptation and mitigation.

As Ed Miliband has made clear, the financial crisis and growing inequality mean now is not the time for tinkering but radical change at home and abroad.

In the months ahead Labour will set out plans for how we will apply both iron discipline to UK aid spending and seek the big global changes that are necessary. We also believe there should be an enhanced role for diaspora communities who in many cases send more support home to their country of origin than we provide in aid. Our explicit long-term objective will be to work with developing countries to move from relationships based on dependency to interdependency. Surely even the sceptics must acknowledge that our aid recipients of today will be our trading partners and strategic allies of tomorrow.

David Cameron wanted his commitment to increase the aid budget to be a symbol of how he had changed the Conservative party. Instead, in recent months he has been forced to pander to the right, spinning falsely that aid increases will be mainly spent on plugging holes in the defence budget, supporting British business and reducing immigration. There is widespread concern about DfID’s loss of direction under Justine Greening who has no ambition or vision for the future.  

The Tory-led Government's strategy of saying little about aid over the past three years has backfired. As the 30 per cent increase in the aid budget drew nearer their desperate attempts to give a misleading impression of how it will be spent has played into the hands of the sceptics. Worse still, contrary to pre-election promises, the performance of UK aid programmes under the Tories is getting worse not better. Like in so many areas Cameron's failure to provide strong leadership is coming "home to roost" with disastrous consequences for public support and confidence.  

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