Will Quince: UK Aid can do more than respond to humanitarian crises – it can help prevent them

As part of CFID's recent Essay Collection, published with Save the Children, MP Will Quince writes about the power of UK aid.

UK Aid can do more than respond to humanitarian crises – it can help prevent them

There is often a scepticism amongst the British public about international aid; cynicism that their money is being used to fund foreign governments or wasted on pointless projects. Much of this is rooted in assumptions which are long out of date, yet there is consistently support for intervention when tragedies occur and disasters strike, such as the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis.

Britain is a superpower in international aid, not least because of the generosity of the public in these situations. There is no better way to see the impact which our aid has than to witness it first-hand: last September I visited the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. I met a lady whose house was burnt, her husband killed and her son murdered before her eyes. She walked for five days with her remaining children and what possessions she could carry to the camps. As I spoke to her, she held her eight-month-old baby, who looked about four months old because of malnourishment. She was desperately trying to feed her baby as we spoke, but her own malnourished body could not produce the milk to do so.

Having seen the devastation and suffering caused by this tragedy, I am proud that the UK is a leading donor to the humanitarian response in Bangladesh. We have committed £129 million to the crisis since August last year, including the announcement in May of an additional £70 million of humanitarian support to help ensure the thousands of persecuted Rohingya people are protected as the cyclone and monsoon season begins. This new aid is providing additional medication, sturdier shelters, food, clean water and support for women to give birth safely. Our support is also funding a large vaccination campaign against cholera in and around the Cox’s Bazar camps.

Over recent years humanitarian crises have increased in both number and severity. Since 2010, the proportion of its budget which the Department for International Development has allocated to humanitarian response has increased significantly from 6% to around 15%. If we are to deliver the value for money which the public expects from their aid money, then we cannot simply react to disasters as they occur – we need to invest to try and prevent them from happening in the first place.

One key area of prevention which the Department for International Development works on is vaccinations – an investment which saves a child’s life every two minutes. Through the UK’s funding of Gavi, a public-private partnership that provides subsidised vaccines to children across 73 developing nations, we have supported the vaccination of 640 million children and saved 9 million lives from preventable diseases. Between 2016 and 2020, Gavi will be delivering our target of immunising 76 million children with the goal of saving 1.4 million lives.

Investment in vaccinations also delivers a substantial return. An analysis undertaken by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that when looking solely at the costs of the illnesses prevented, such as treatment and lost productivity, the return on investment for every pound spent on vaccines was around £16. When this was widened to look at the broader economic impact of illness, including the value which people place on healthier lives, the return on investment increased to around £44 for every pound spent. Further studies have found that the projected coverage of vaccination programs accrue more economic and health benefits to the poorest in developing countries than the richest.

Another example of investing in prevention is the UK’s partnership with the World Bank and Germany for the Centre for Global Disaster Protection. Natural disasters are not always surprises, and while around half of the costs associated with these incidents are covered by insurance in high-income countries, in lower-income countries less than 5% of the costs are covered. Moreover, as DFID minister Lord Bates stated in his speech to the International Insurance Society Global Insurance Forum, spending £1 on work to prevent floods or droughts can save around £3 on humanitarian assistance. The purpose of the Centre is to support developing countries in their disaster planning through investing in science and research into systems which will work for the poorest countries, providing training to help countries understand how to manage risk and make more informed decisions, and bringing together experts to design financial tools for disaster planning.

Through proactive investment in the prevention of humanitarian crises, whether it is vaccinations or the development of the Centre for Global Disaster Protection, we are seeing a step-change in our approach to tackling these issues. By spending money now, we can reduce the likelihood of these tragedies occurring and save more lives. The public’s affinity with the work funded by our aid budget often comes from seeing responses to crises on their TV screens, but we must be better at making the case that prevention is better than cure and the most effective work often goes unseen.

By Will Quince, Conservative MP for Colchester