Britain as a force for good
There are plenty of people who argue that aid is a waste of money. Secretary James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis – current US Secretary of Defence, and former Commander of the US Joint Forces – isn’t one of them. In 2013, Mattis said if the US cut its diplomacy and development budgets “then I need to buy more ammunition”.
Mattis is right. In today’s complex and highly interdependent world the people who argue that we should spend more on the military but slash the aid budget have fundamentally misunderstood the threats that Britain faces. Our security is threatened from state and non-state actors; by strongmen dictators and by the fragile and failed states that incubate terrorism and conflict. We face threats that recognise no geographic boundaries – terrorist cells, online hackers, and epidemics like Ebola and Zika can strike unannounced at any moment.
Meeting these threats requires a combination of hard and soft power. We need an effective aid budget, alongside an active diplomatic and defence strategy, to protect ourselves. But keeping Britain at the forefront of saving lives, alleviating poverty and bringing freedom, security and prosperity to those who need it most, is not only in our own interests, it is also the right thing to do.
You won’t know it from our newspapers, but Britain is a global leader in development. The work we do is hugely respected across the world, and the Department for International Development (DFID) is regarded as one of the world’s most transparent, effective aid donors.
Our achievements should be a source of great national pride. We have helped to make the world safer, healthier and better off. British aid has immunised 67.1 million more children against preventable disease across the world, helped ensure Mozambique became landmine free and saved 6.2 million people from dying of malaria. We have literally helped to bring life and hope to millions of people.
That doesn’t mean we can be complacent. Recent events show us, once again, how important it is to scrutinise every partner we work with and every program we fund. Wasting aid, funding corruption or exploitation, is sickening. It is a double crime, stealing both from the world’s poorest and most desperate people who need aid most, and from the UK taxpayer whose money it is.
The UK must invest its aid carefully, strategically, and coherently. We should concentrate on the programs where we know we can deliver results, and where results can deliver real change. Take girls’ education, which Boris Johnson calls “the Swiss army knife, the universal spanner” because it tackles so many problems, from radicalisation to poverty. Educated women have fewer children and their children are more likely to survive infancy. They have more opportunities to work, to earn an income, grow their economies and to participate in public life. So at a time when female equality is being hotly debated at home, it is fantastic that the FCO and DFID have made the provision of 12 years of good quality education for girls one of their top foreign policy priorities.
It isn’t just education, DFID also has a great track record when it comes to delivering vaccines, clean water programs, and – crucially – tackling pandemics. We can’t build a wall to hold back an epidemic. Defeating disease outbreaks at source is critical if we want to prevent them from arriving on our own shores. The UK was also at the forefront of the fight against Ebola and, as a result, West Africa has now been free from the disease for over two years.
Aid is not a silver bullet. It won’t solve all of the world’s problems, or meet all our security needs. The money donated by governments represents a fraction of the wealth that is generated by private investment and trade. Wealthy countries could do more to accelerate the growth of developing countries by lowering tariff barriers and cracking down on tax havens. Ultimately, developing countries will have to grow their way out of poverty, and for the foreseeable future most countries will need to invest directly in their own defence and security.
However, there are some things that aid does best. It is only aid that can help the poorest people in the poorest countries lift themselves out of poverty. Aid saves lives, supports refugees, gives life-saving support to stop people dying of hunger during famines, and vaccinates children against entirely preventable diseases. These achievements are worthwhile in their own right, but they also genuinely make us safer. Disasters, conflicts and diseases don’t pay attention to national borders, so neither should we.
By Theo Clarke, Chief Executive of CGP, former Director of CFID