Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Thank You For Giving (Did You Realise You Were?)

Well it has been a couple of days since I blogged so I shall ease myself back into it with what I consider a pretty simple topic - overseas aid. Britain's overseas aid programme ran at a shade under £8 billion in 2009/10. The Coalition has pledged to keep increasing that to £11.5 billion over the next four years. Now the concept of aid, domestic or international, is a good one - nobody should dispute this. It is, however, true that some pretty large chunks of world international aid does not end up in the right hands. So there is the ongoing issue of implementation of aid programmes, but that's not what I'm going to concentrate on today.

Today, I'm going to talk about where our aid goes, specifically considering the richer recipient countries. The big ones are probably well known, because they've received a bit of attention already on precisely this topic. On 2009/10 figures, Britain gave India some £330 million, China £35 million in international aid. I think this is wrong.

Now there are a couple of obvious canned responses; "but there are still very poor people in those countries" being the most obvious. How do we counter this then? There are some very poor people in the UK too. So why don't we get international aid? In my mind it is because the very concept of aid is not being adhered to when you give money to a country who have a space programme. Likewise, you don't give aid to a country that runs a surplus year on year, especially not when everyone else (including the donor countries) are running deficits.

Those who beat the drum of international aid would do well to realise examples like these go a long way to discrediting the whole system. It is hard to explain to the man on the street in the UK why the NHS is having to make billions of savings yet Britain is giving nearly £60 million in aid to India, the world's eleventh largest economy to pay for health services. Or why we are having to look for savings in education when we are giving China, the world's second largest economy, nearly £10 million to bolster their education spending.

I have no doubt that the poor of China and India can well do with an extra £30 million combined spend on HIV/AIDS treatment, prevention and education, but that is not the point. They are incredibly rich countries who are choosing to use their resources not to help their own poor but to widen the gap between rich and poor. It is as simple as that. The philosophy of giving money to someone who refuses to spend what they have on the right things is without a doubt one of the reasons behind our cripplingly expensive yet utterly ineffective welfare system. The international community should be pressuring these countries to spend their money more wisely - clearly it is not working to simply make up for their basic shortfalls whilst allowing them to grandstand with not just strong economies and nuclear weapons, but the temerity even of an international aid programme of their own.

The problem comes when you remove money and the previous recipient country refuses to fill the gap. This is made all the more difficult when dealing with non-interactive Governments (say, North Korea). So we are left with a moral dilemma. Do you remove the aid and hope for the best, or continue to pour money into rich countries with interesting moral compasses? The answer probably lies somewhere in between, with the onus being on the international community to exert pressure on these countries to wean themselves off aid. This will only begin to happen, though, if we are willing to look at the situation as it is and realise it is wrong. I wonder if anyone is brave enough to stand up and say it in Government though, knowing the predictable backlash that awaits anyone who asks for entrance into a dialogue over anything the liberal left hold dear, no matter how deludedly. The Coalition pledge suggests not in this Parliament - we'll have to see who wins the next election to find out if the Tories don't understand this one, don't care, or are just picking their fights. I hope the latter, but there's probably more chance of India putting a man on the moon. Oh, wait...

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