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Robert Halfon MP: The Conservative case for overseas aid

RHRobert Halfon is the Member of Parliament for Harlow. Follow Robert on Twitter.  His second piece in our Compassionate Conservatism series follows the first from Jesse Norman MP.

99.3% of the UK Budget is not spent on Overseas Aid. So what is all the fuss about?  When looked at in the context of the whole of the Budget, 0.7% is in fact a very small amount. 

And whilst we are on about fuss, who wrote this? -

“Our generous but carefully controlled aid programme is both an investment in the freedom and prosperity of the poorer countries and in a stable and expanding world economy"

- or when asked about the essential role of Government, argued -

“ have to do international aid."

It was none other than Margaret Thatcher.  The first quote is from the 1983 Manifesto, and the second from The Times in 1988.  Whilst she was in office, the UK spent more, in proportion to GDP, on overseas development than the United States.

Those who oppose aid usually give the argument that much of it is salted away by corrupt governments and the like, or that it creates dependency. No doubt some of it is. I have my own concerns about aid that is meant to go to poorer Palestinians and is instead used to incite terrorism. (My colleague Gordon Henderson spoke in detail about this in a Commons debate in February). But to follow this argument to its logical conclusion, one would never give any money to charity, because some individuals may fritter it away.

A strong emphasis on overseas aid is not a ‘modernising’ fad  - nor even just about woolly compassion  - but a hard-headed analysis of British interests, global stability, a useful form of intervention and an essential strand of Social Justice.

It is worth looking at these in turn.

  • For Economic Conservatives, aid as investment in infrastructure and small local enterprises means that, with time and the right programs, a developing country recipient of aid will become a trade partner for its donors.  Micro-Businesses become small businesses, which become trade.
  • For Neo-Conservatives, who believe in intervention to stop genocide and terrorism, aid can be used as a means to nurture liberal and democratic values, to ensure that there is less room for terrorist groups to fill the vacuum of poverty and offer social services in the way that extreme Islamist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah have been so successful in doing.
  • For Euro-Sceptic Conservatives, who campaign against EU Biofuel Directives, taking agricultural land away from farmers in the developing world, as land is being used to grow ‘renewables’, all in the cause of climate change, is wrong.  To take just a couple of examples, around a fifth of land in Sierra Leone and half in Cambodia and has been brought up by companies dealing with ‘green energy’.

For social-justice motivated Conservatives, there is a moral duty, as Andrew Mitchell once put it, ‘not to balance the Budget on the backs of the poorest in the world’. To take one notable highlight: DFiD support for anti-malaria programmes will halve the deaths in at least ten malaria-ridden countries by 2015.  That is not misplaced compassion, but a substantive measure to alleviate poverty and higher death rates.  What better example of social justice could there be?

Screen shot 2013-04-22 at 00.26.24Just because we can believe in overseas aid, that doesn't mean we don't recognise how it could be improved, or how to engage the public. But improvisation is very different from anathema.  

It is worth looking at four different ways to make our aid programme better:

First, by using Conservative support for international development not as a stand alone policy, but as part of a rich thread, or narrative of our mission to help the poor both at home and overseas.  If modernisation means anything, then helping the poor, through Conservative means has to be our central theme.

Second; Aid should be much more transparent. The UK public should be able to see as far as possible how the money is being spent.  Taxpayers should be able to track overseas aid on the internet, from the moment it is allocated, to the moment the results are delivered.

Third; the public should have some input as to how the money is spent. There should be a special Aid fund controlled by taxpayers, to introduce popular competition among aid projects, and increase democratic control.

Fourth; aid should be as bilateral as possible and go direct to NGOs.  There should be less need for the UK to direct aid money through the EU, or the UN or via Government to Government - except where there are cases of important political leverage.

In Mozambique, 80% cent of Dfid Aid goes direct to the Government and the rest to NGOs. Whilst this proportion is higher than that in many other recipient countries, it is a useful example of how much better aid would be if it went direct to the charity organisations on the ground.

One of the most powerful examples of aid I have seen was on a three and a half day visit, over the Easter break to Mozambique with Save the Children.  In one remote village, STC aid workers were doing one simple thing: they were supplying, machetes, saws, wires and water sterilising bottles to villagers, many thousands whom had lost their homes in the flooding.  Hundreds of these tools were laid out on the earth, ready to be given out to residents, so that they themselves could rebuild small reed huts in which to live in. (See photo above.)  When I watched all of this, I thought of the saying: “If you give a man a fish, you give him him a meal, if you teach a man to fish, you give him a meal for life’.  I also reflected on how profoundly Conservative it was.

You can read Robert’s blogs about his trip to Mozambique with Save the Children, here and here. Photographs from the visit are displayed in this article.


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