Yesterday's Sunday Telegraph had a touch of drama about it. The front page headlines said, "British still giving hundreds of millions of pounds in aid to wealthy countries." http://www.telegraph.co.uk/
Well it caught my attention. When it came to power in 2011 the coalition government made a historic decision to ring-fence its promise of 0.7% of GDP. For a lot of people the fact that a conservative-led coalition made this kind of commitment is either a minor miracle or a political mystery waiting to be revealed...
The fact is that it happened. But this headline which appeared during the Lib-Dem Party conference and a few days before the Conservative Party conference does make you wonder if we are about to see a u-turn on the commitment.
In a period of economic austerity, domestic politics always trumps international benevolence. What people in Britain want to know is how they will feed themselves and pull back the rise of real poverty in Britain - not look out for other people 5,000 miles away. And because politics is always ultimately about self-interest the government has never been able to convince everyone that this policy is defensible. Given all of this the headlines feel like some kind of growing conspiracy against the 0.7% commitment.
Frankly, I'm also frustrated by the whole business. The government must have known that in this economic climate being 'nice-guys' was unlikely to win the day. So why aren't they doing a better job of explaining the decision in terms people can understand and even applaud? After all, the people who are likely to protect the commitment are not the sophisticated NGO leaders who already get it: it's the grassroots people who are themselves struggling to make sense of their own unemployment. And if they have provided a clear argument, why isn't it more readily available? I mean, no one has to guess the deadline for their tax returns. The messages are everywhere!
If we are to keep our promise to the poor the coalition have some homework to do.
First tell us what 0.7% of our national gross wealth looks like - and avoid the danger of people thinking that 0.7% looks more like 7.0% Secondly, let's make sure people don't run away with the idea that rich countries are giving away aid money without any returns. On average over US$393bn leave Africa in minerals and natural resources every year in return for an overall figure of about US$44bn in aid. Most nations who receive aid from rich countries pay back up to 10 times more in profitable resources or minerals than they receive in aid. Thirdly, aid is about economic self-interest. Poor countries make poor trade partners. It's in our best interest to ensure that health care, education and business flourishes in poor nations because wealth and security should mean a better world for everyone.
Aid is no perfect answer to our poorest nations and there are very able economists from rich and developing worlds who are very anti-aid. Britain is already doing a great deal to promote democratic development, human rights and peace-making in many trouble spots across the globe. Its commitment to aid is a part of that recovery plan for a better world and every pence of tax-payers aid money only makes sense against this broader picture of foreign and development policy.
The most helpful response is not to cut off our promise of 0.7%. It is to do an even more rigorous job in targeting the poorest of the poor. And in the middle income nations such as India, Russia and Brazil where aid is still being given we have an important job to make sure that those governments and business communities are doing their very best to deal with the distribution of wealth in their own nations. Where we are doing this, we should make sure that people in Britain know it.
But we also have to underline the fact that poverty - like wealth - is a relative reality. A poor person in Bangladesh without a social security network is still not the same as a poor person in London with one. The comparison doesn't free us from responding to poverty in Britain, but neither does it absolve us from dealing with poverty around the world.
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