This article was originally published in the Daily Telegraph Comment section and on the Telegraph website.
In the three decades between 1981 and 2010, extreme poverty fell dramatically, all across the planet. Over half the people in the developing world were then condemned to lives of abject poverty, according to the World Bank. Now that figure has fallen to roughly one out of every five people. While that is still too high, this is the single greatest fall in human deprivation in history – and is largely the result of expanding free trade and increased private investment, not of government-financed aid programmes.
Generosity is a marvellous thing. In its Christmas Appeal, readers of the Daily Telegraph give hundreds of thousands of pounds to good causes every year. But is generosity, not with one’s own money but with Other People’s Money, such a great idea? Particularly when it is tied to an arbitrary target, such as the UK government’s pledge to give 0.7% of national income to aid?
These questions are worth asking as the Conservatives prepare their manifesto ahead of the General Election. For it is rumoured that the commitment to this level of government aid expenditure may well be dropped.
Britain currently spends over £12 billion pounds a year on international aid. Much of this spending is clearly in both the national interest and that of poorer countries (where, rightly, our spending is focused). For example, our aid programmes will help about 60 million people access clean water and sanitation, saving 1.4 million children’s lives through immunisations, and improving nutrition for at least 50 million people. The UK has also, to its credit, been active in alleviating the worst aspects of the Syrian refugee crisis. By helping people in need in the region, we are helping those whose lives have been destroyed by war while providing some improvement in Europe’s migration crisis.
We should of course continue to help those in greatest need. But we should still ask whether sticking to a 0.7% target is wise. After all, only six countries in the world match or better that level of spending – and only the UK government spends that much while also living so far beyond it means.
And having an annual target for spending certainly encourages some strange decisions. Consider the £4 million sent from the UK to North Korea, in the hope of boosting western values and improving relations. Or the National Audit Office’s recent revelation of how aid spending was rushed towards the end of a financial year simply to meet the 0.7% target. Or the channelling of at least £9 billion into 219 different World Bank trust funds over the past five years. Or the reports of aid being spent on Western consultants with £500 million going to the 11 biggest contractors in 2015 – double the amount they received two years previously.
Some domestic departments have faced significant spending cuts recently. Research by Oxford University has suggested that an unprecedented spike in mortality - with 30,000 excess deaths in 2015 - could be linked to budget reductions for councils, and a rapid deterioration in performance by health services. Yet the overseas aid budget continues to increase – overall by almost four times in real terms since the late 19990s. Would it not be better for charity to begin at home?
So, yes, the Conservative party would be sensible to drop its 0.7% spending commitment on aid. This would indicate neither small-minded nationalism nor a mean-spirited parsimony. Just a realisation that the target itself is more of a political fig leaf than a true attempt to alleviate global poverty. To do that, just let free trade and honest markets work their wonders.