Development aid: one good reason for pride in Britain

Scrutiny of development aid is important, and helps ensure it is used effectively. In the real world, all honest scrutiny will identify things that need improving. Today’s Making Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s report needs to be read in that context. There’s a good article on it in The Guardian here.

There’s always the danger, however, that those who are opposed to aid on ideological grounds, or simply those of prejudice, will seize on the existence of any criticism to argue for a reduction in, or even the abolition of, the aid budget. So it might be a good time to rehearse some of the fundamental reasons why it matters.

In the pastoral letter Who is my Neighbour? (PDF), the Church of England’s bishops said:

The government is to be commended for committing 0.7% of GDP to overseas aid when budgets have been so hard pressed. For any party to abandon or reduce this commitment would be globally irresponsible in pragmatic terms as well as indicating that the moral imperatives of mutuality and reconciliation counted for nothing.” (p74)

Those commentators who try to dismiss the letter as a leftist whinge against the government might note this is one of several places where the letter commends the government. Why though, do the bishops say this?

For Christians, there will always be an awareness of the gospel imperative to help those most in need, and that we are encouraged to do things not for those who might one day return the favour, but for those who never can. It is, of course, not only Christians who might wish to argue for the morality of altruism on the basis of need.

There is another moral argument, from obligation. The West’s economic superiority and standard of living owes much to our past history of colonialism. Bluntly, even those of us who believe that the British Empire gave many of our former possessions much of value, should be honest that our shared history was more to our benefit than theirs. Our markets’ purchasing power can still over-determine their economic production, and to their detriment.

But for those who think moral arguments have no place in politics, who oddly enough are always those who gain advantage from present arrangements, there are also pragmatic arguments.

A very practical argument is that the more we can contribute to the well-being, health and stability of other countries, the greater their chance of a more productive economy, better health, less violence, fewer economic migrants and asylum-seekers. Aid helps others and serves our own long-term interests.

Changes in the world’s climate, combined with deep poverty are a real threat in sub-Saharan Africa, for example. As in Northern Nigeria, with Boko Haram, there’s a real danger that those conditions will leave people prey to the rise of militant Islam. For the sake of global peace and stability, we need to support solutions to things that are not just “someone else’s problem.”

When it’s well placed, and UK aid is better targeted than ever, (even if, as toady’s report reminds us there’s always more to be done) it helps economies grow to the point where they can trade more effectively, and be better global citizens.

Well-placed development aid is win-win. And, to be honest, we should be proud as a country that the UK government is leading the way by honouring our commitments. Aid is an investment in the world’s future.