An appeal for aid: The case for international development is persuasive – but its supporters have to make the case more loudly


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As attempts at parliamentary sabotage go, this one did not make it far. Enough MPs turned out to scupper a plan by Conservative backbenchers to throw a spanner in the works of new legislation governing foreign aid.

Future governments will now almost certainly be obliged to spend 0.7 per cent of Britain’s national income on it.

And yet, there has been little jubilation, or indeed noise of any kind, from the group of 146 MPs who formed a vanguard around the proposed Bill. Supporters have been easily drowned out in the press by the cantankerous objections of Philip Davies and Jacob Rees-Mogg. This mutedness owes a good deal to the bleak picture of Britain’s public finances as revealed by this week’s Autumn Statement. Public opinion tends to overestimate the amount Britain spends on aid, and perhaps as a consequence desires it be cut back. And with the Institute for Fiscal Studies saying that cuts “on a colossal scale” will be needed after May’s general election, the politicians who stick their neck s out in favour of diverting money from public services to fund projects overseas is taking a big risk.

Even at such a time, however, it is not impossible to mount a defence of legally enshrining a set amount of aid spending, and more public figures should have been out on the stump to make it. At the least, that might have prevented the situation we find ourselves in now – in which Westminster appears to be riding far ahead of public opinion, without even the decency to explain why the rest of us should catch up. That the 0.7 per cent target was set more than 40 years ago is not sufficient argumentative ballast: other European nations have cut their foreign aid budgets nevertheless. Britain became one of only five countries to reach the target in 2013.

A sensible case for continuing to do so would update the narrative: the backlash to Band Aid 30, which used the same patronising song as it did three decades ago despite Africa’s impressive economic growth, showed a public increasingly sceptical of teary-eyed imprecations.

It would talk first of the increasing rigour of development projects, and of the measurements of their success. After decades of toing and froing on whether aid can effectively tackle poverty, recent studies cluster around the conclusion that it does, albeit to a comparatively small degree. A World Bank paper reviewing 35 countries reported that, for every 1 per cent of national income a country receives in aid, growth in real income per person increases 0.3 per cent.

It would also, crucially, admit that the most effective way to assist recipient states is to help them to make more money themselves. Less than a 10th of 1 per cent of all aid is spent on helping poor countries to build a functioning tax system. That should be increased as the budget goes up, and as a corollary aid organisations ought to admit their primary role as facilitators of progress – unable to “make poverty history”, but equipped to improve the work of local institutions, as well as do good on their own. The old adage of teaching a man to fish has not been taken up as it might be by the sector as a whole.

The Conservatives have also swung the purpose of the Department for International Development towards opening up markets for British companies: the DfID budget, then, not only saves lives – and a good many of them – it furthers trade and diplomatic co-operation. At one-seventh of a penny in every pound spent by the Government, it is excellent value for money. Now all we need is someone to say as much.