The UK has continued its commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on overseas development aid each year, (The UN’s target for all developed countries in place since 1970), believing that this helps to build a ‘safer, healthier, more prosperous world for people in developing countries and in the UK’.
The UK first managed to achieve this figure in 2013, before making it into law in 2015, and it has been a hotly-debated topic ever since.
Passionate supporters of foreign aid spending suggest that ‘if we allow extreme poverty, instability and humanitarian crises to go unchecked, the consequences will eventually be felt just as deeply back in Britain as they are abroad’. Such supporters praise our dedication and celebrate the fact that we are the third highest donor country in the world.
On the other hand, those against Britain’s foreign aid commitments point to the UK being one of only a handful of countries (along with Germany, Sweden, Luxembourg, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Denmark and Norway) that meets the UN’s 0.7% target – representing a futile commitment in an international setting of non-commitment. And that’s not withstanding the wider view amongst some of the general public that ‘charity begins at home’, which makes this a political hot potato.
I believe that the UK’s foreign aid spending is important, helping those in real need around the world. The UN’s Millennium Development Goals are the significant challenges facing our time (including climate action, peace and justice, and an end to poverty), and only through real support on an international level can we hope to achieve them. As one of the three big givers (along with the US and Germany) the UK has had a real impact in areas such as malaria, agriculture and reproductive health. I doubt that many of us are aware that UK aid saves a life every two minutes.
So how can we improve perceptions of foreign aid spending?
- Improved communications: The Department for International Development (DfID) should take responsibility to showcase the amazing achievements and benefits of the UK’s foreign aid. This should be formed around more regular reports and bolder communication. DfID would benefit from more streamlined communications across its social media platforms, as well as more digestible reporting on its website that clearly links to its overall objectives. This is not to suggest that DfID’s current communications are poor – its Development Tracker, for example, is a particularly strong feature – but simply in my view that further improvements could be made.
- This would help towards the de-politicisation of foreign aid spending. Currently, it is too easy for parliamentary opponents to level criticism at foreign aid spending, focussing on the total figure. Perhaps a cross-party committee could help the discussion on foreign aid spending to become more structured, moving away from frustrations over why we spend this money towards suggestions of how we best allocate financial aid. As a comparison, German foreign aid spending is well structured through clearly defined government agencies and bodies, led by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2011, Germany merged three aid delivery companies into one, the German Company for Technical Cooperation to streamline operations, avoid duplication and increase efficiency and transparency.
- Improved infrastructure: There have been suggestions that overseas aid is not being properly monitored against the Government’s goals. This partly stems from limited infrastructure, with some departments struggling to spend their official development assistance because they do not have the staff and systems in place to deal with the increasing amounts of money that they are handling.
It seems that Priti Patel, Britain’s foreign aid minister, is considering such issues, recently commenting that ‘DfID needs to be integrated with other departments so that post-Brexit we can be even stronger in the world’, as well as recognising that ‘Part of my job has to be to demonstrate the value of UK aid.’
The debate on foreign aid spending is not likely to end soon – and nor should it. There are real issues to address, but there are also solutions. Hopefully such solutions will help us to more clearly understand our foreign aid spending and allow us to more visibly see the benefits of it.
Do you think foreign aid spending should be changed? Do you have any other thoughts on how it might be improved? Comment below or tweet us, we’d love to hear your thoughts!