Few government budgets attract so much sniping as that of the Department for International Development. Tory backbenchers see the £8bn spent helping foreigners as a foul waste in times of austerity; envious cabinet ministers, such as Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, have lobbied hard (if unsuccessfully) for a slice of the pie to be shunted their way. The situation is made no easier by the fact that, as the Chancellor seeks a further £11bn in cuts, spending on aid will increase.
Thankfully the embattled International Development Secretary, Justine Greening, has hit on a shield that few of her Tory colleagues dare aim at: economic self-interest. Tackling poverty is not only the right thing to do, says Ms Greening; it is also the “smart thing”. She wants to build trade links that will “make sure we are in the growth markets of the future”.
Of course, this is music to Tory ears. But it also rings true outside of Westminster. Indeed, opponents of aid spending might be surprised to learn that, in March this year, BP, GlaxoSmithKline and Ikea – no bleeding hearts – signed an open letter saying that to increase the aid budget was in Britain’s economic interests.
DfID’s announcement last month that it will invest £51m in the developing economies of Burma, Liberia, Nigeria and Malawi follows their logic. By helping governments in these countries to limit corruption and build the foundations for a strong market, Britain will be in a stronger position – so the thinking goes – to corral some reward when the expected growth spurt hits.
Veterans of the aid industry may be discomfited by this focus on the bottom line. Yet things have changed since the last time Britain hosted the G8 summit in 2005, when aid was seen primarily as a moral duty – and it is perfectly reasonable to argue that effective aid policies can be economically beneficial and geopolitically smart as well as the right thing to do. For instance, rigorous trade standards might increase productivity while helping to prevent disasters such as the Bangladesh factory fire.
Ms Greening is doing a good job in difficult circumstances. She will face further attacks on her departmental budget in the months ahead. Her initial focus on transparency and eliminating waste was the foundation of a strong defence. This willingness to go out to bat for Britain’s economic interests only strengthens it.