The government’s statistics on international development show that in 2016 the UK was the world’s third largest contributor of official development assistance (ODA), behind only Germany and the USA. We funded £13.4bn worth of aid in total, one of only six developed nations to meet the UN’s 0.7 per cent of GNI target for ODA spending.
But with the rise of anti-refugee politics in Germany and President Donald Trump’s repeated calls to significantly cut spending on foreign aid, there is now a very real prospect that the UK could soon become the world’s largest funder of international development. And while some media outlets have cried out against this level of spending, thinking this money would be better spent domestically, we should be proud as a nation for our noble humanitarian efforts, setting a high standard as a world leader for other Western nations to follow, and showing clearly that we are a truly global country.
However, moral self-righteousness is no excuse to go around spending taxpayers’ money without due course or care. Taking a closer look at where exactly these generous sums are going raises some serious concerns. 36.2 per cent of ODA funding goes into multilateral schemes like UN projects, in which the UK has little say over where the money ends up. Indeed, many more projects are dubious in their nature and purpose.
Why should a penny of British taxpayers’ money go towards supporting a Russian satellite regime in Belarus, or be spent on nuclear and space power like India or China? Even direct bilateral schemes like assisting impoverished Ethiopia, the third largest recipient of UK aid, have been exploited and misused, with DfID money found to be going towards a brutal resettlement programme conducted by the Ethiopian government that has uprooted an estimated four million people.
When we are not able to help British overseas territories in the wake of devastating tropical hurricanes, but we are able to help known authoritarian governments, people have become sceptical of whether this huge foreign investment is worthwhile – and with good reason.
So, it’s clear that UK international development spending is in serious need of reform, but where exactly would this reform start? In order to evaluate how to make international development what it deserves to be, we have to take a step back and look at its objectives: “to promote sustainable development and eliminate world poverty”.
If the last 100 years of global history are anything to go by, there is no better way to promote development and eliminate poverty than through smart free-market policies.
Trade and development go hand in hand and are inextricably linked. Trade helps a developing country utilise its comparative advantages, improve political relations and share technological advancements, all of which contribute greatly to development. The UK government must recognise and fully embrace this fact, and a key way of doing this would be combining the departments for international trade and international development into one.
The two areas of responsibility are already in close proximity to one another and would be able to operate better under one roof – helping build up developing nations for the long term with education, healthcare and infrastructure, all while cementing trade links with them in the process. As a combined entity with great synergy, the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts, not to mention cutting down on laborious bureaucracy and making the workings of government more efficient, which is always something to cherish.
Critics might say this approach is simply the work of imperialist and capitalist interests trying to profit off the backs of the impoverished and vulnerable for their own gain, but the government taking people’s hard-earned taxes and throwing their money at problems around the world has clearly not always worked and it isn’t a long-term solution.
International development is an investment in the future for both parties involved, not a flashy showpiece to confirm one’s own piety. Where lies the issue in a donor nation receiving better trade links and improved global connections out of their investment, not least when the receiving nation is benefiting from this as well?
Indeed, no government department can ever justify its own existence unless it delivers real benefits for the citizens paying for it, so ensuring foreign aid pays off for everyone involved is hardly the moral crisis of the century.
There have already been steps taken in the right direction: reducing funding to schemes in India as part of its pledge to cut support for self-sustaining nations. And the international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, has already made clear her ambitions to ensure aid spending delivers for the UK and is as cost-effective as possible.
The government must now ensure it continues down this path further and truly reforms spending in this area, creating a proper international development strategy that can ensure long-term success.