Covid-19 can finally slash Britain’s bloated overseas aid: The money should go to saving lives, not juggling lessons in Tanzania

Damian Wilson is a UK journalist, ex-Fleet Street editor, financial industry consultant and political communications special advisor in the UK and EU.

16 Mar, 2020 17:40 / Updated 4 years ago

The MPs who are about to start investigating the effectiveness of the UK’s £14 billion annual aid have the perfect reason to cut it; thanks to coronavirus, Britons are thinking of what’s best for them.

As MPs on the newly-created House of Commons select committee on International Development roll up their sleeves before getting stuck in the nitty-gritty tomorrow, they have one thing on their side that might make efforts to slash the UK’s aid budget more successful than in the past – the Covid-19 pandemic.

Because every time a newly-appointed minister has previously announced his or her intention to take stock of how the legally ring-fenced 0.7 percent of GDP is spent on overseas funding, there is a hardening of resistance from those that stand to benefit.

And there have been many ambitious, starry-eyed politicians to take on this role. From current incumbent Anne Travelyan, we have had eight secretaries of state for this department in the last 10 years, including Priti Patel, Rory Stewart, Andrew Mitchell, and Hilary Benn.

But despite the burning ambition of each of these politicians, none managed to get to grips with ensuring that the billions earmarked for international aid actually went to those who needed it most.

Instead, we have had years of sending aid to China – the globe’s second largest economy – and India. Nations which both spend billions on sending rockets into space. Other prime beneficiaries of Britain’s generosity have included Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Nigeria.

We have wasted shedloads of taxpayer money on juggling lessons in Tanzania, teaching yoga in India, school dinner studies in China, and support for the National Symphony Orchestra of Iraq.

It’s not just these bilateral efforts – country to country – that need closer scrutiny, it’s also the donations we make to multilateral outfits like the United Nations and European Union that we need to row back on.

In the past, Britain’s aid to the EU has been used on such bonkers projects as promoting tourism in Iceland, bankrolling a French tourist resort in Morocco, supporting a hospitality management school in Barbados, and subsidising a Turkish TV station.

One study on how the money sent to developing countries was spent found that money in tax havens Switzerland and Luxembourg held by these countries actually increased when aid was distributed. Hmm, why on earth would that be?

Needless to say, making a few corrupt officials mega-rich is not the aim of international aid.

Still, to many people, talk of cutting the aid budget is unwelcome, to say the least. Charities of all hues are suddenly up in arms and cite poverty, disease, under-development, and historical reasons why British taxpayers should continue to send billions of pounds abroad in return for nothing concrete.

Former PM David Cameron didn’t help things when he said a healthy overseas aid budget was a “moral obligation.”

The difference this time, as Anne Travelyan is no doubt aware, is that the public mood has shifted drastically, thanks to the coronavirus. We are inundated with maps, charts, and tables of figures in newspapers and on TV showing country-by-country analysis of the spread of the virus, detailing varying, sometimes conflicting, approaches to dealing with the problem.

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We can monitor the pandemic table as if it was a football league: so many tested, so many infected, so many dead. We can watch as businesses line up to teeter on the edge of bankruptcy. And the effect is that it makes us pull for our team, our nation, over others.

We are starting to feel our place in the world like no other time, except during war. It makes being an island off mainland Europe a huge plus.

Let’s be honest. What I’m saying is that we are suddenly more selfish. There. I’ve said it. And it is no bad thing.

When people are fighting over loo rolls in the aisles at Tesco, suggesting we slash a few hundred million off the bill for EU aid, for instance, is unlikely to meet much resistance, particularly when it’s unclear where that money will actually end up – someone’s Swiss bank account or building a water supply in a dusty Ethiopian village.

When the coronavirus finally completes its grim task and we all get back to what we were doing before its arrival, and the International Development select committee has completed its inquiry into the spending, administration, and policies of the Department for International Development and the effectiveness of UK aid, then one thing is certain.

If this government is serious about putting the wellbeing of all Britons first, then the international development budget will be nowhere near as large as what it is now.

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