Leading article: The right is wrong on Africa

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The Independent Online

The Dadaab refugee camp in north Kenya is now the third most populous city in the country. It holds 360,000 people who have fled from neighbouring Somalia, where drought and civil war have combined to threaten famine. Oxfam says 10,000 a week are arriving at the camp, where they squat hopefully outside the perimeter in increasing squalor.

Yes, we have heard similar stories before, but no, that does not mean that compassion is misplaced or ineffective. We report today on the crisis in Somalia, a week after David Cameron stood firm against a campaign by the right-wing press to push the Government off its promise of a generous policy of international aid.

The starvation in Somalia will be used by both sides of the debate about aid. The Daily Mail might say that it proves that there is no point in putting money into East Africa because long after Live Aid the world had to do it all again with Live 8, six years ago.

There have always been famines in Africa, and there are always going to be, the simple argument runs – and, besides, aid money goes to corrupt governments or is wasted by local elites.

The Independent on Sunday does not accept this fatalism. Picture Dobley, in southern Somalia, where the only borehole for 50 miles is running dry. Oxfam reports: "There are hundreds of people and about 15,000 emaciated cows, camels, sheep and goats crowded around trying to get water to stay alive." Oxfam engineers are frantically trying to keep the water flowing.

There is much that can be, and is being, done in Somalia and in other poor countries, mostly by charities. And the larger story of international aid since Live Aid ought to be one of the great affirmations of human progress. Of course, mistakes have been made and money has been wasted by corruption, but lessons have been learned and we now know far more about what works.

Thus we applauded the Prime Minister's resolution three weeks ago when he addressed a campaign supported by Bill Gates to vaccinate children in poor countries. "At a time when we are making spending cuts at home, what we are doing today and the way we are protecting our aid budget is controversial," he said, with commendable directness. "Some people say we simply can't afford spending money on overseas aid right now, that we should get our own house in order before worrying about other people's problems."

Referring to the promises made at the G8 summit at Gleneagles after Live 8, he said: "This is about saving lives. It was the right thing to promise. It was the right thing for Britain to do. And it is the right thing for this Government to honour that commitment."

And, in the teeth of the right-wing campaign to go back on the promise made by all three main parties at the last election to raise aid spending as a share of national income, he said: "I don't think 0.7 per cent of our gross national income is too high a price to pay for saving lives."

He is right. Just as, in the technical economic debate, aid-sceptics such as Dambisa Moyo and William Easterly are wrong and Amartya Sen and Robert Cassen are right. Cassen's study, Does Aid Work?, which The Economist called "the most exhaustive study of aid ever undertaken", showed that most aid succeeds.

Thanks partly to the leadership of Clare Short, the first international development secretary, Britain's aid programme has become not only more generous but more effective, bypassing corrupt governments and focusing on programmes that work. We know how to make aid effective: by ending conflict, spending more on schools and clinics, securing private property rights, attracting investors, promoting free trade within Africa, and ensuring that the poor share in economic growth. As Paul Vallely recently wrote in these pages: "In recent years, smarter aid has been producing smarter results."

In places such as Somalia, we can only provide emergency relief while trying to solve the political problems that are the underlying cause of famine. In Somalia it is not drought but civil war that kills.

The difficulty of securing a political settlement should not stop us being compassionate towards the refugees – nor should it be allowed to undermine the case for aid more generally.

That case is strong, morally and economically. As Mr Cameron said last weekend: "In this world, where countries are tackling deficits, and more than ever before the emphasis is quite rightly on getting value for money, what greater value for money can there possibly be?"