Peter Kellner recently
"http://labs.yougov.co.uk/news/2011/10/24/why-question-wording-matters/">explained that the BBC licence fee becomes less popular if you describe it as an annual cost rather than as a daily
cost. When people are told it costs £145.50 a year 27 per cent more people disapprove than approve. When they are told that’s only the equivalent of 40p a day there’s a striking
turnaround: 8 per cent more people approve than disapprove.
You see a similar thing with Britain’s development budget. When the aid budget is expressed in terms of billions of pounds, people object and they object strongly. When it’s presented
in more human-sized ways it is much more popular. A recent ConservativeHome "http://conservativehome.blogs.com/thetorydiary/2011/06/cameron-recommended-as-model-of-fiscal-and-compassionate-conservatism-to-us-republicans.html">survey of Tory members, for example, found
that 79 per cent of normally aid-sceptical respondents could agree that “£2.22 of taxpayers’ money to protect ten third world children from polio is money well spent.”
I am a big supporter of the aid budget. I’m offended that we live in a world where, on a daily basis, 25,000 children die of diseases which we have the power to prevent. I’m glad
there’s a cross-party consensus in favour of Britain doing all that it can to change this.
The flagship and most popular part of Britain’s aid budget is David Cameron’s commitment to the initiative of Bill and Melinda Gates and others to vaccinate children from diseases like
malaria. The Prime Minister estimates that the British taxpayer will save four million lives during this parliament through this hard-headed initiative that works hand in hand with the private
sector. “What greater value for money can there be [than that]?” he "http://conservativehome.blogs.com/thetorydiary/2011/06/the-best-thing-the-coalition-is-doing-protecting-250-million-people-from-killer-diseases.html">said recently.
Other parts of our aid budget are feeding the starving in the Horn of Africa. Elsewhere money is helping poor countries protect themselves from extreme weather events, including flooding. In places
like Afghanistan the budget is educating young girls, in recognition of the fact that women are often the main drivers of a country moving from poverty to stability.
Some people complain that this is all very well but, at a time of budget cuts at home, we can’t afford to be compassionate abroad. I have two responses to that. First of all, many people have
an exaggerated idea of the size of the aid budget. Even if we stopped giving any money at all to the poorest, hungriest and most desperate people on the planet we would still have 90 per cent of
Gordon Brown’s huge debts hanging over our heads. Stopping aid isn’t a solution to our debt problems. Second, and perhaps more significantly, we should be aware that every penny spent
in a place like Africa can achieve an awful lot more that it would otherwise. £4 in Britain buys a bottle of Cape Peak Chardonnay at Tesco. Used in Senegal it buys an insecticide-treated
mosquito net for a mother and her family. That’s priceless. There are thousands of similar examples.
When George Osborne told Andrew Mitchell, the International Development Secretary, that he would be getting a bigger budget he left him with just three words: “Spend it well”. That is
what Mr Mitchell is trying
to do. The Department for International Development is being shaken up from top to bottom to minimise waste and maximise effectiveness. There is now a transparency guarantee so we can inspect
how our aid is deployed. Money is being targeted on poorer nations, and there’ll be no more cash for Russia and China. More aid is going to help conflict-torn nations so we do everything we can to
stop countries becoming tomorrow’s Afghanistans and Somalias. More money is going to support enterprise in developing countries and, like every Whitehall department, DfID is cutting its own costs
by a third.
Of course, some aid will still be wasted. Some aid will still end up in the wrong pockets. But a farmer doesn’t stop planting seeds because some fall on stony ground or among the thorns. He
plants because he knows some will yield great fruits. In the same way our aid budget is having transformational effects for many very poor communities. It is having transformational effects in
countries where the government is either weak, corrupt or indifferent.
Some say we should stop helping the poor in India because the country’s government has a space programme. But it’s not the fault of the 456 million Indians living on $1.25 a day that
their government has questionable priorities. We wouldn’t walk by if the parents in the next door house were enjoying the high life while their kids were underfed — and the same
neighbourly principle of benign intervention applies to poverty in India.
The debate shouldn’t be about aid or no aid, but about what kind of aid works best. As Nicholas Kristof
"http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/19/opinion/19kristof.html?_r=3&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss">argued in the New York Times, it’s dumb aid versus smart aid. It’s about recognising
that a lot of aid was wasted in the past but that was when western and communist governments used aid, particularly in Africa, to buy the loyalty of different governments. In this post Cold War era
more aid — particularly UK aid — is being targeted on those who are really deserving, and we’re learning better and better ways to bypass corrupt officials.
Finally, of course, it’s about more than aid. The best poverty-fighter ever devised by man is capitalism. Sadly, many of the development NGOs are part of the anti-capitalist movement. They
are wrong. Although aid can play a role in vaccinations, emergency aid, women’s health, education and as a catalyst for wider development, the best hope for poor nations remains free trade.
Creating new markets is also a big part of the solution to our economic woes and a big force for world peace.