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Dr Teck Khong: We should maintain our international aid spending - but we can make it smarter and more innovative

Khong Teck2Dr Teck Khong is the Chairman of Conservative Friends of Malaysia and an approved list candidate.

Two years ago when the European sovereign debt crisis was starting to worsen, a challenge was posed to do something that would be beneficial for our party and our country. At the same time, there was growing awareness of a need to reconnect with the Commonwealth. An initiative was therefore launched with the focus on Malaysia and an exploratory trip to Kuala Lumpur was undertaken in February this year. From a NGO caring for vulnerable people and the learning disabled, there was a request for support with its delivery of healthcare services. Then, during discussions at the Malaysian Prime Minister’s Office, two issues emerged. One was a need to improve English Language skills and the other was a strong desire to escalate direct bilateral relations in the small and medium enterprise sectors. At a separate meeting, the directors of SME Bank of Malaysia expressed their wish to work with the British in developing trade and the exchange of technical knowledge in the small and medium enterprise sectors. The potential advantages for both countries were apparent but, sadly, without interest and support from parliamentary colleagues in Westminster, SME Bank of Malaysia signed a MOU with SME Bank of Russia earlier this month for the same purpose.

The follow-up trip to Malaysia in July took in a visit to an ecological farming project centred on a rural valley community. The remarkable feature of Malaysia, with its rich natural resources, is not its diverse tropical flora and fauna but the human capital. The host, a young community leader who had studied engineering at a Japanese university and returned to Malaysia to work in an electronics firm, gave up his well-paid job to help his widowed mother with their banana plantation. He introduced into the valley aqua-culture of prawns and fish. To improve the financial returns, he set up a cooperative with other farmers. However, the project’s technical director, whose conservation and sustainability plans included self-sufficiency in energy (hydro-electricity from the waterfalls and solar power) highlighted the fact that while the average age of Malaysian farmers is 60, 40% of all the farmers are over 70. While such agricultural projects may slow depopulation of rural areas and urban congestion, external expertise is required to tackle the declining food security so paradoxical in a fertile country. On the matter of younger villagers wishing to progress to off-farm employment, the community leader cited the bleak prospects of the two hundred school children in the village who could not speak good English and were heading for failure in their English exams. It was poignant when he summed up a plea for his community that they desperately needed technical aid, not money.

That plea seems to corroborate the views of Angel Gurría, OECD’s Secretary-General, that skills have become the global currency of the 21st century as they transform lives and drive economies. We should therefore rethink our approach to foreign aid with a fresh emphasis on skills and not cash. This is particularly relevant where money has allegedly been given to corrupt governments, or to developed countries that do not require financial assistance. Given that there are people in this country with poor skills who are at risk of unemployment, poverty and reliance on social benefits, we should use the £12bn a year of foreign aid pledged by our Prime Minister to develop the skills that are appropriate for domestic application, but which are also suitable for secondment abroad. Indeed, this is an ideal opportunity to set up schemes for up-skilling the unemployed and simultaneously reduce the state benefits burden! After all, with our levels of unemployment and the public resentment over the 34% increase in foreign aid, it’s only sensible to remember that charity begins at home and that it is best to play to our strengths.

Aid for communities in other countries that lack essential facilities or amenities available to other citizens in those countries, is not only a means of addressing inequalities and eradicating poverty but it is also an important way to promote peace. Lord Ashcroft’s open letter to Justine Greening on ConservativeHome urging her “to recommend to the Prime Minister to turn off the golden taps and stop flooding the developing world with our money” highlights the problems with the governance of these monetary transfers. It would certainly be more transparent and acceptable to give aid in the form of targeted technical assistance learned from the Malaysian experience rather than financial awards. For example, to assist the Malaysian NGO that required the assistance of doctors specialising in Down’s Syndrome care, it would be possible to send some of those doctors from the United Kingdom and cover the locum costs during their temporary absence, while at the same time offering suitable training places in Down’s Syndrome care in the United Kingdom for Malaysian doctors. Indeed, several consultant community paediatricians welcomed such a sabbatical leave opportunity that combines the deeply satisfying experience of serving abroad with work that adds to their portfolio of continuous professional development. Even a regional postgraduate dean was so impressed with the concept that he pledged to offer such training placements for Malaysian doctors. This format of aid, which assuages the anxieties of the British public, is both cost-efficient and cost-effective.

For sustainable and shared growth between the United Kingdom and recipient countries, aid should therefore be given in the form of education, skills and training rather than money. Secondary and mutual benefits such as business and trade opportunities often occur downstream from the primary aid programme. An important caveat, however, is that aid should be tailored to the particular needs of not only individual countries but of the specific regions within those countries. Furthermore, while the focus in most countries is on helping youths acquire the skills required by the labour market, long term considerations must be given to the development of sustainable food and energy security, and the nurture of health and social stability.

This time, we cannot afford to neglect the Commonwealth. It might be contrarian, but given the global political situation, China’s financial ascent and the state of our national economy, we need to continue deploying foreign aid more innovatively, not to curtail it, and in the form of technical assistance rather than money, in order to promote British interests and world peace.


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