The UK has a relatively large budget for foreign aid compared to other countries (although still not large enough), and it should surprise no-one that not all of it is particularly well-spent. Last week’s story about an Ethiopian girl band allegedly receiving a sum of £5.2 million for their “branded media platform” was a case in point. I’m not sure that we’ve been given all the details here, but even taking the story at face value, it does little more than underline the fact that any detailed analysis of how money is spent would throw up apparently unjustifiable examples.
Part of the problem with the aid budget is that those running aid programmes have a strange desire to receive proper credit for the aid given – they prefer to give the money to something on which they can then stick a Union Jack so that people know where the money has come from. And if there’s a photo-op for a politician as well, then all the better. A girl band ticks the right boxes. It’s not dissimilar to the Welsh Government’s approach to projects which it funds – they have the same preference for projects which can be badged and used for ministerial PR. The result, in both cases, can be that the visibility of the expenditure is more important to the politicians than ensuring that the money goes where it’s most needed.
But accepting that the aid is not always being spent in the best or most effective way is an argument for better control and targeting, not for a reduction in the amount being spent. The fact that a girl band may not need £5.2 million doesn’t mean that people in Ethiopia don’t need that £5.2 million. And it certainly isn’t any sort of excuse for the argument being put forward by some of those drawing attention to this sort of spending that we need the money more in the UK.
In this specific case, we had some Tory MPs arguing that the money should instead be spent on “funding adult social care in the UK”. It’s an utterly false choice. It isn’t just Tory MPs, of course – how often have we all heard the line about ‘charity starts at home’, or ‘why are we sending money abroad when there’s so much poverty at home?’. Just scan the letters columns of any daily newspaper over a period. But is inadequate funding for adult social care really the direct result of the way the UK spends its foreign aid budget?
At its basest, this attitude is based on an assumption that we can’t tackle poverty in the UK (or fund mental health or social care - insert here any pet project of your choice) because we’re spending our money on foreign aid instead. And the ‘conclusion’ which is drawn from that is that the way to help the poor is by taking aid away from the even poorer. There is a massive level of inequality in the UK but, according to this view of the world, what keeps people in their current state isn’t that the richest in our society are accumulating an ever greater share of total wealth, it is that a tiny proportion (0.7%) of UK GDP is spent on overseas aid, and an even tinier proportion of that might be being misspent. And of course it has nothing to do with decisions to spend money on other things within the UK (such as a new laser weapon system, with a price tag of £30 million – it makes that £5.2 million look like a very wise investment). One has only to put it in those terms to see the complete fallacy of the argument.So how do they get away with it? Why is it that people are so ready to believe that the problem isn’t with the richest siphoning off the country’s wealth, but with the attempt to provide a minimum of assistance to the world’s poorest? Perhaps we should start by asking ourselves who controls the content and direction of public debate - and whose interests are served by convincing the poor that the problem is the even poorer.