Paul Scully MP "We should be proud of aid’s impact but ambitious to achieve more"

Published as part of our joint collection of essays with Save the Children UK. Paul Scully MP argues we should be proud of the UK's aid impact, he cites Sudan, Rohingya and work on Ebola as powerful examples of how the UK steps up to help the most vulnerable people in the world.

Many of the essays in this collection are based on the authors’ personal experiences of seeing the difference that UK aid makes first-hand, and they span issues from the protection of civilians in conflict to investment in girls’ education and the need for a new development bank. It is an endorsement by parliamentarians from across the party of the case for a ‘Global Britain’ to be a compassionate Britain.

We should be proud of aid’s impact but ambitious to achieve more

By Paul Scully, MP for Sutton and Cheam

In September 2017, I was one of the first UK MPs to walk through the Kutapalong refugee camp in Bangladesh at a time when 400,000 Rohingya refugees had fled for their lives from Burma into one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest countries. When I returned six months later with the International Development Select Committee, what had quickly become the world’s largest refugee camp was home to 700,000 scared, tired, traumatised people, predominately women and children who have seen and been victim to the most atrocious crimes. UK Aid has been at the forefront of the humanitarian response, providing £129 million over the last year for food, shelter, clean water and medication through a range of UN agencies and large NGOs.

Although some people question why we give aid, they can usually appreciate the moral position of helping our neighbours in immediate need, such as when we assist countries and communities recover from natural disasters. In this instance, this man-made tragedy has been well supported by members of the public picking up the phone and donating directly too. The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) appeal raised an incredible £28 million mainly from people who had seen the media coverage which captured the horrifying nature of this situation so well.

Nothing prepared me for the stories that I heard from people there who had seen their young children beheaded or castrated; their sons stabbed; their daughters raped. People showed me the bullet wounds in the backs of their legs sustained as they fled from their burning villages towards the border that the Burmese military was determined to ensure they crossed, never to return. We are fully involved as a country in pushing for a lasting resolution to this longstanding conflict but in the meantime, we must step up as one of the largest economies in the world and support people who are suffering simply as the result of where they were born.

As a member of the select committee which scrutinises the Department for International Development (DFID), I have also looked closely at the situation surrounding Syria alongside the debate that has engaged Parliament about refugees. The UK remains the second largest donor in support of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries, supporting hundreds of thousands of Syrians on a day to day basis, keeping them out of the hands of human traffickers and away from the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.

Our committee has spent a lot of time looking at DFID’s work in education across the globe. Whereas the UN’s original Millennium Development Goals included the worthy aim to achieve universal primary education, the successor Sustainable Development Goals moved to a more substantive outcome, to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and the promotion of lifelong learning opportunities for all. The former just relies on getting children to school; the latter is more meaningful, expecting those children to learn with a purpose. This is the sort of pragmatic approach that was always needed to ensure that international aid can be spent well.

In Uganda I saw teachers regurgitating lessons that had been written down on a tablet without a care as to whether the children were listening or taking in anything that was being said – they weren’t. That isn’t good enough and should not attract support from the UK taxpayer. But I also saw great teaching in Uganda and Kenya with school leaders having a deep understanding of issues that can keep students engaged in school and learning. They understand how ensuring the supply of sanitary products, properly lighting areas to give girls security after school, addressing the risks of predatory behaviour that so often lead to early marriage and young pregnancies, all help keep students in school. We take so much of this for granted. Among the outlying areas in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, these things are the difference between keeping someone in school with the prospect of a job, or a life in servitude, possibly ‘beaded’ by an older Samburu warrior relative which too often leads to appalling abortions, female genital mutilation and early marriage.

Our government’s commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income on overseas development assistance often comes under attack. Sometimes it seems that the development community bristles at such criticism, writing off complainants instead of making a positive case both for our moral and humanitarian responsibilities and for the positive benefits for the UK taxpayer. “Charity begins at home” is a powerful, simple debating point that we need somewhat more than four words to rebut. Our response to the plight of the Rohingya should offer a powerful example of the effect of how the UK steps up to help the most vulnerable people in the world. DFID’s work in Syria clearly demonstrates how we can support hundreds of thousands of people closer to home rather than the much lower figure that we would be able to relocate. We have seen across the EU the effect of the ‘pull’ factor by the opposite approach taken by Angela Merkel in inviting one million refugees to Germany.

Effective aid can ease immigration pressures both through addressing forced migration at source and economic migration through improving governance, the economy and living conditions of countries like Bangladesh. This helps in removing some of the ‘push’ factors which start the well-trodden path to Europe and the UK from a number of such countries.

Encouraging better governance and improving both access to education and raising educational standards can start to tackle security issues at source rather than waiting for problems to come to our shores. Ever-increasing air travel and our globalised economy means that our successful intervention into the Ebola crisis and our ongoing support in the fight against malaria and tuberculosis, both of which are becoming increasingly resistant to drugs, keeps us safe. Whilst malaria in the UK was prevalent in the 17th Century, it had all but disappeared from the UK by the beginning of the 20th Century. We cannot take our successes for granted.

At a time when more of us are starting to lift our heads and look out to the world, our international aid is an important cornerstone of our soft power. Alongside our language, culture, institutions like the British Council and the BBC, our aid and DFID’s leadership in development is welcomed in every corner of the world. DFID’s involvement in a project can leverage so much support and investment, such is the respect held for our aid experts.

For these reasons we should be more proactive in sharing the success stories of UK Aid, what we can achieve and what more we can do. Penny Mordaunt has been a strong leader in this since becoming Secretary of State. Her five pledges for UK Aid offer compelling reasons to follow her lead – boosting trade and investment with developing countries; helping developing countries to stand on their own two feet to build sustainable health and education systems that they invest in themselves; readiness to cut funding from organisations that do not deliver on targets we set; spending aid directly to tackle the issues that matter most to the British people; and finding new ways to help other departments make their spend more effective. All of these are aimed at showing taxpayers their money is not only spent well but that it cannot be spent better.

This is how we can and must make the case for effective aid. Let us be proud of what we achieve, vigilant to make sure we continue to get real value for the taxpayer and ambitious in what more we can do for both the poorest in the world and the UK itself through international aid.