Government should revolutionise overseas aid, says think-tank

Written by Andrew Holt

A new book by foreign correspondent and senior research fellow at think-tank Civitas, Jonathan Foreman, urges the Government to revolutionise its approach to overseas aid.

Among its recommendations is a shift of one third of the UK’s £8 billion overseas aid budget to the military to ensure that Britain is capable of mounting swift and effective emergency relief operations in the wake of disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and famines.

This rather than increased aid spending is the real way to make the UK a “foreign aid superpower” according to the book, which is highly critical of current aid policy.

Emergency relief is the most effective form of aid, the book argues, and is much less prone to the corruption and waste that bedevils so much of Britain’s lavish aid spending.

It also enjoys the highest level of public support.

Not only would money currently allocated to the Department for International Development (DfID) be diverted to the Ministry of Defence to pay for dual-use helicopters, planes and ships, but as part of a sweeping overhaul of UK aid policy, the department would return to the overall control of the Foreign Office.

The pledge to increase UK aid spending to 0.7 per cent of GDP by 2015 (which means spending an extra £3 billion over the next three years) should be scrapped, the book adds.

Other key proposals include funding the BBC World Service foreign language services out of DfID’s budget.

Those broadcasts which cost only £272 million a year provide an invaluable service to listeners, promote democratic values abroad, and win more influence than conventional aid.

The Civitas publication, Aiding and Abetting, written by Jonathan Foreman and based on extensive research across the globe, is scathing about the “exorbitant and self-indulgent” public relations motivation behind David Cameron’s decision to commit the UK to the 0.7 per cent target.

It maintains that this “magic number” has no empirical basis in or connection to the amount that would be required to genuinely make a difference to global poverty.

Foreman writes: “The powerful momentum behind current aid policy seems to have much to do with the Conservative Party leadership’s ongoing drive to ‘detoxify’ its ‘brand’ and market itself as ‘compassionate’.

"To the extent that an increase in foreign development aid serves this public relations purpose, its effectiveness or lack thereof at delivering a better life and future for various poor peoples around the world is presumably beside the point, although at $11 billion per annum it amounts to one of the most expensive marketing campaigns in history.

“To ‘rebrand’ his party and cement the Coalition with the Lib Dems, David Cameron is apparently willing to take advantage of the real generosity of British people and simultaneously make life more miserable for the handicapped, the elderly and the otherwise vulnerable.

“More jobs will go, British servicemen will wait longer for their third-rate prosthetic limbs, the elderly will suffer, not because there is not enough money but because money is being thrown at projects and governments that we know will not use it effectively.

“It means that a set of policies trumpeted as manifesting generosity is in fact a cynical, ruthless and morally reprehensible con-job pushed by marketing gurus for whom their real-world effects in the underdeveloped world are largely irrelevant.”

The book urges the Government to follow the example of most other developed countries and abandon the 0.7 per cent target.

It also points to abundant examples where aid funds have been stolen by corrupt foreign governments and their officials, high and low, and where money contributed by the UK taxpayer has probably done more harm than good – and certainly failed to reach its intended beneficiaries.

The author cites Zimbabwe, where food aid has kept many people alive while preserving in power a regime responsible for the deaths of large numbers of people and the destruction of one of Africa’s most prosperous and best-educated societies.

Foreman says that too much UK aid policy is naïve, founded on “ideologically conditioned fantasies and delusions” about the behaviour of rapacious political elites in poor countries.

At the same time the Aid Industry has evolved into a system of outdoor relief - or rather, fulfilling and lucrative employment -- for the British upper middle classes, and their kleptocratic equivalents in Aided countries, a system that has many of the least attractive characteristics of Victorian imperialism and missionary activity.

More controversially, the book suggests that Coalition enthusiasm for spending on dubiously effective foreign aid that might otherwise be spent on vulnerable people at home, may reflect the class backgrounds of the Cabinet.

Foreman writes that: “Such people are perhaps more likely to engage with poor Africans and South Asians on their holidays than they are to encounter needy or vulnerable people in their own country.

"And it is hard to escape the impression that it is for this reason (rather than pure snobbery) that the PM and his circle apparently find it harder to empathise with a ‘chav’ in a wheelchair – even if he lost his legs in Afghanistan – than they do with disadvantaged people in the third world.”

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