Like all Members of Parliament, I receive hundreds of emails every week from constituents giving their views or asking questions. These range from the big international issues of the day, to relatively small local matters. No topic seems to divide opinion, however, as much as the UK’s spending on overseas aid and development. On the whole, it’s a binary debate; some call for much more to be spent, while others demand spending to be stopped entirely. I am of the view that, if spent well, our aid budget, overseen by the excellent Department for International Development (DfID) and reputable NGOs, can do almost immeasurable good. This doesn’t just help the recipients in far-flung parts on the world – it also provides tangible benefits to us here in the UK.
You may have heard of the 0.7% Gross National Income (GNI) aid spending target. This totemic UN target, has been around since 1970 (with initial discussions of aid targets as early as the 50s) and yet we are one of only a handful of countries that have met it in recent years. The UK first hit the target in 2014, under the Coalition Government, and sticking to it was enshrined into law by David Cameron’s Government the following year. To put the 0.7% figure into context, it equates to £218 per year in tax to someone on the average salary in Barnet of £31,100.
The moral arguments for aid are obvious – each year we can prevent millions of avoidable deaths from disease through immunisation programmes and providing access to clean water and sanitation, and help millions of children get a basic education. $3 a week can help combat HIV, still the largest killer of women and girls of reproductive age.
For those not convinced by the moral arguments, taking a hard-headed look reveals tangible benefits at home. Helping a poorer country build a basic health service reduces health tourism to the UK. Working to stop Ebola in Sierra Leone prevents it from spreading into Europe. Helping stabilise a fragile country could avert a civil war and the resulting mass migration. Fewer people, too, will turn to crime and piracy – blights which often spread and fuel larger problems like the drugs trade, human trafficking, and terrorism. In the longer term, helping poorer countries tackle the corruption that cripples their societies and holds back their economies could result in a trading partners for the UK in the future. Done right, it is the ultimate win-win investment.
The mantra of “charity begins at home” and the siren-song calls to end all overseas aid spending are seductive, but I believe they are a false economy and ignore our moral responsibility to help others. The life-changing effect of aid really hit home to me when, a few years ago, I visited Vietnam. I met there a man and his family who lived in a small shack with a corrugated iron roof. At night, the mosquitos were out in force. The man owned a single mosquito net in which he and his family slept. He worked in the fields and often had to sleep away from home. Each day, he had the agonising decision of taking the net and leaving his family vulnerable, or sleeping without it in the fields and risk contracting malaria, which would mean he couldn’t earn money. Thanks to an NGO funded by DfID, he now has two mosquito nets so he and his family can live and work safely.
To me, reaching the 0.7% aid target was one of David Cameron’s most important achievements and one I am proud to continue supporting today.
Published in the NW Circular magazine, June 2018.