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Debate report: Britain must cut its overseas aid budget now

3 November 2011

3:48 PM

3 November 2011

3:48 PM

Last night, as we mentioned yesterday and the day before, was The Spectator’s debate on whether Britain should cut its overseas aid budget. Here, for
CoffeeHousers who couldn’t attend the event, is Lloyd Evans’ review of it:

Chair: Rod Liddle
Proposing: Ian Birrell, Richard Dowden, Stephen Glover
Opposing: Prof Paul Collier, Alan Duncan MP, Richard Miller
Ian Birrell, former speechwriter for David Cameron, proposed the motion by likening aid programmes to helping child beggars in the third world. The gift, though well-intentioned, keeps children out
of school, encourages more kids to start begging and condemns entire families to penury. If aid worked, Birrell would happily treble it. But it distorts economies and humiliates the recipients.
‘Aid workers are the new colonials, driving around in 4x4s and earning many times more than locals.’ Waste is inevitable. Barely 40p in every pound, he said, reaches the intended
beneficiaries. And aid promotes corruption. Uganda’s president spent $30m on a new jet three years ago — equivalent to half his country’s annual aid budget. And aid encourages
tyranny. Rwanda, which receives huge chunks of UK cash, has been accused of sending hit-squads to Britain to assassinate the government’s enemies. David Cameron’s commitment to spend
0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid is an arbitrary target based on out-moded statistics. And though aid makes us feel good, it leaves a chaotic legacy. Aid promotes Africa as a ‘helpless
supplicant in need of help from heroes in the west.’ Images of poverty and crisis deter westerners from engaging in trade, and in tourism, which could deliver long-term prosperity. Aid
mustn’t be confused with development. Birrell pointed to Somaliland, an autonomous region of Somalia, which manages to feed itself and which has a relatively stable democracy. It receives no

Paul Collier, director of the Centre for the Study of African Economics at Oxford, attacked the ‘squalid’ motion as an attempt to vindicate heartless parsimony. ‘Just because
we’re hard up we’re going to cut money for the poor.’ He warned against overestimating our importance in the third world. ‘Africa is a struggle between Africans. We’re
the supporting cast.’ Aid alone, he said, cannot destroy a society because, ‘societies make or destroy themselves.’ Responsibly administered aid can be an instrument of good
governance. And the UK aid programme is ‘a world-beater’ which gives our demoralised youth something to be proud of. Aid is more than a sign of our moral worth, it’s ‘a
chance to be magnificent and Quixotic.’ To vote against the motion would be to break a government pledge. ‘Where would your pride be,’ he asked, ‘and your sense of

Richard Dowden, commentator on African affairs, differentiated emergency relief programmes, which he supports, from aid programmes which merely offer us ‘a feel-good fig-leaf’. Africa
is a poor country, run by rich elites, and ‘aid keeps them in power’. African governments research western aid programmes scrupulously. And they aren’t constrained by targets or
by public opinion. ‘They know us better than we know them’. Once we start to donate, ‘we’re trapped.’ Dowden reckons that with rising African prosperity, driven by
Chinese investment, aid will become less relevant. ‘They’re not as dependent on us any more.’ Africa’s real problem was ‘capital flight’. So instead of focusing
on aid, we should attempt to prevent the huge outflows of wealth from Africa. We need to reform our visa system too. Ethiopians have to travel to Nairobi to gain a UK entry permit. 

Alan Duncan, minister of state at DfID, confessed that he once believed overseas aid should be privatised. He now regards it as the foundation of our claim to be a civilised society. Public
opposition, he said, was ‘skin deep’ and based on a misconception that aid absorbs as much as a quarter of Britain’s income. Relative to GDP, the budget is miniscule. ‘Even
if you were down to your last hundred quid, would you refuse to give a dying man 50p?’. He praised his department’s recent reforms and its new focus on results, on value for money, and
on external scrutiny. ‘Transparency is a god. You can see on the website how every penny is spent’. Duncan recognised that aid involves ‘imperfect and mucky countries’ but
he distinguished governments from people. ‘Bad governance doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help the poorest in those countries.’ And he preferred to talk of
‘development’ rather than ‘dependency’. Aid means lifting people out of poverty and helping them sustain their own livelihoods.

Stephen Glover, columnist for the Daily Mail, argued that opponents of aid shouldn’t be cast as ‘morally defective, or beastly people’. The motion specified the word
‘cut’ which didn’t mean outright abolition. He found it ‘impossible to accept intellectually’ that the aid budget had to be ring-fenced at a time when most other
departments were trimming costs. He objected to the waste and corruption aid brings. ‘It’s childish to pretend large amounts aren’t being creamed off.’ Britain’s
donation to Pakistan is set to rise from £140m to £350m and yet Imran Khan has stated that ‘little aid reaches the intended recipients’. And Glover pointed to India, the
biggest single beneficiary of Britain’s largesse, whose economy is, by certain measures, already larger than ours. Cameron’s pledge to protect the aid programme was a PR stunt intended
to ‘detoxify the nasty party.’ The government should have the humility to think again.

Richard Miller, a director of ActionAid UK, offered a simple message: aid works. Medical programmes undertaken since 1990 mean that 10,000 fewer children die of preventable diseases every day.
‘That’s sixty lives saved,’ he said, ‘during the nine minutes I’m speaking to you.’ In 1983 he visited crisis-torn Ghana where the demoralised citizens regarded
emigration as their only hope. By 2010, Ghana had been transformed. ‘The numbers going hungry have fallen by 75 per cent, and eight of ten Ghanaian children attend school’. Stable
government and a sense of optimism have brought the emigrants back. In Rwanda, a British aid programme in 2000 reformed the revenue system and introduced ‘tax justice’. The Rwandan
government is now able spend its own income on its own initiatives. Miller reminded us that many third world countries plan to end their aid programmes altogether. ‘We shouldn’t waste
our investment now by cutting aid.’ It’s unacceptable, ‘to turn our backs on malnourished babies and mothers for whom childbirth is Russian roulette.’

The motion was defeated.

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