Conservative Diary

International development

7 Sep 2013 11:46:27

Cameron's good decision on Syria and aid

By Paul Goodman
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This site is quick to boo David Cameron when it disagrees with him - as earlier today, for example, when considering HS2.  By the same token, ConservativeHome should be swift to cheer him when we agree with a decision he's made.  I wrote earlier this week that the Government is in a good position to offer a lead to other countries on Syria and aid (that was before Putin's spokesman apparently dismissed Britain as a "small island", and the Prime Minister crafted a Hugh Grant moment in response).  A combination of humanitarian feeling and self-interest should move Ministers both to help Syria's refugees and support its neighbours: were the civil war to spread across its borders, the consequent turmoil would be likely to shake the world's economy and thus ours.  I repeat: a way of beginning to grasp the scale of the Syrian conflict is to imagine that it was Britain.  Were this the case, over 20 million people here would be in need of food, water, medical care, shelter - or would simply have fled abroad: that's more than three times the population of London.

Continue reading "Cameron's good decision on Syria and aid" »

5 Sep 2013 08:19:24

Heartless? Ignorant? The truths and myths about public opinion on international aid spending

UK Aid 2
By Mark Wallace
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As we've already heard throughout our series this week, the debate on increasing or decreasing spending on international aid is a roiling pot, a brew of emotions, morality, hard-nosed economics and human empathy, all at the same time and coming from all sides of the debate.

But it is also, inevitably, a political and electoral issue. Aid has been drawn inevitably into the headlines by David Cameron's pledge to ring-fence and increase it despite the wider policy of austerity. 

Doing so draws sharp contrasts. The Prime Minister feels it's the kind of issue which gives a character reference: like ringfencing NHS spending, it shows that spreadsheets and bottom lines haven't completely conquered the human heart. For others, it provides a far more negative reflection on his values: that while British people see public spending cut, the Government continues to send money abroad.

The opinion polling has much to tell us about the people's views on the issue, how politicians might respond and - at minimum - what the electoral cost of sticking to their principles might be.

This debate has been simmering almost since the first day of Coalition. While charities involved in overseas aid were overjoyed at the ringfence pledge, there were voices of caution from the outset, warning that public opinion was not on their side.

The Institute of Development Studies (a different IDS to the one we normally write about) published research in September 2010 that presented a number of fundamental findings:

  • More than 60 per cent of the public agreed with the principle that the UK had some obligation to help the world's poor
  • Just over half agreed explicitly with the idea of sharing some of the UK's wealth with the poor in developing countries
  • 64 per cent said helping the poor at home should take priority over the poor abroad
  • 63 per cent supported cutting aid as part of the effort to address the UK deficit, while only 8 per cent supported an increase in spending
  • 57 per cent opposed ringfencing foreign aid (while, by contrast, more than 80 per cent wanted a ringfence for the NHS)

If the first two findings seem to contradict the third and fourth, that's because they do, in a way. The IDS had identified two fault lines in the aid debate: the distinction between supporting aid and supporting more aid; and the question of whether to prioritise poverty at home over poverty abroad.

Aid versus more aid

Advocates of increased aid spending - including Andrew Mitchell, when he was International Development Secretary - appear to have fallen victim to a fallacy. As the Spectator reported in 2011, they interpreted polling which show people evenly split over the principle of international aid as meaning there was a public support base for increasing it.

That was not the case. The disconnect between public opinion on the principle of aid and the policy of more aid identified by the IDS had if anything strengthened slightly a year into the Coalition's austerity programme. For example, TaxPayers' Alliance polling found in June 2011 that 69 per cent of people wanted a freeze on international development spending, while 43 per cent were willing to scrap the budget entirely.

There are plenty of explanations: that people think we spend enough to satisfy their concern already; that they are sceptical of the effectiveness of international aid; and that they feel that with limited money, British taxpayers' money should be spent at home first.

International aid versus domestic aid

The aid debate has for many become a direct choice - between spending the money abroad or spending it here, at home. Many people may share the principle that we should help the poor around the world if we can, but they do not believe that should come at the expense of the poor in the UK.

For obvious reasons, the financial crisis and the national debate over austerity has sharpened this choice. DFID were reporting polling only months before the election which found up to 40 per cent support for increased aid spending - if the numbers were ever really that high, they have been swept away by increased public awareness of the national debt, the size of the deficit and the economic problems the UK still has to overcome. 

Supporters of aid have failed to adapt to a new political environment. This was a fatal error - "charity begins at home" is a common enough phrase that it should have been obvious it would have a revival when the airwaves are full of discussion of how much we must save from public spending in Britain.

What do you know?

There's a common explanation of the failure to convince the public about aid spending: that they don't understand it. 

It's true that, according to Ipsos MORI research carried out in July 2012, 76 per cent of the British public admit to knowing not very much or nothing at all about the aid we give to other countries (by contrast, 90 per cent of the French confess ignorance while only 44 per cent of Saudis do so) . It's also true that there is a tendency to vastly overestimate both the cash amount and the percentage of public spending which goes on aid.

That said, the evidence does not support the idea that if only people knew more about it then they would be more supportive. YouGov have studied this "info effect" by comparing the results of people who are asked their views and people who are given the figures and then asked their views. 

They found that support for increased aid spending falls slightly when people are given the numbers - part of a trend in which support for just about everything falls when the true scale of public spending is revealed. I suspect this is a symptom of shock at quite how large the Budget has become.

The ignorance explanation might be a reassuring crutch to those dismayed by public opposition to spending more on aid, but it is wishful thinking - and patronising wishful thinking at that.

Why the scepticism?

Anyone wanting to persuade the public that we should spend more on aid (or even protect current spending levels) has a mountain to climb. To start to change opinion, they need to understand the reasons for the current degree of scepticism.

IPPR's 'Understanding public attitudes to aid and development' has some uncomfortable truths for advocates of the policy. The British public are blunt about the causes of poverty around the world - rather than simply blaming natural disasters or the hangover of imperialism, they primarily blame corruption and poor governance.

They are wise to do so - we know that famine is caused and economic growth is stunted by greedy autocrats far more commonly than by the whim of the weather or unfortunate geographical circumstances.

That awareness of the problems caused by elites in recipient countries feeds into concern about aid money being wasted. Ipsos MORI found that 61 per cent agree that "most of the money the UK Government spends on financial aid to poor countries is wasted" (again, that number is no lower among those who know more about the topic).

Undoubtedly there is waste - TPA research shows large percentages of the DfID budget being eaten up on non-frontline costs, even before you broach the question of effectiveness or corruption in-country.

But that isn't the whole story. Intriguingly, the authors of the IPPR report suggest that part of this may be down to the way aid supporters campaign:

"...some of the communications and fundraising images NGOs and governments use may have contributed to public scepticism – the repeated use of images that show people living in desperate need has created an impression that very little has changed over the past few decades."

As well as the more common idea of repeated appeals eventually fatiguing our heart-strings, it is a good point that the people are not stupid. They willingly contribute to charitable appeals for the victims Syria, or the Japanese tsunami, but they also pay attention to longer running problems. If the same countries, which we give money to, hit the same problems years or decades after we started handing out aid, it's not unreasonable to ask the question: is it doing any good?

Uncomfortable truths

Over 70 per cent now thinkthe budget is too high, and only 7 per cent suppor tringfencing and increasing the aid budget. 

It's a grim picture for those want to see Britain spending more on aid. The uncomfortable truth is they may well only have themselves to blame for the failure to win popular support.

It's not enough to say there's a problem that needs fixing - there are problems at home that need fixing, too, of which people are keenly aware.

It's not enough to say people don't support more aid because they're ignorant - if anything, the more they learn about our aid budget, the more sceptical they get.

Most of all, it's not enough to air the same images and arguments year after year. At worst, doing so has fuelled a belief that our aid is not solving the problems it is supposed to solve.

Instead, the focus must be on measurable, clear projects. Eradicating diseases, for example, is a clearly understood, far more popular, approach than simply giving budgetary support which disappears into a bureaucratic labyrinth. If aid advocates want to get their way, they need to change their approach.

4 Sep 2013 08:02:09

The wrong sort of Aid

UK Aid 2

By Harry Phibbs
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This is the third piece in our series debating the pros and cons of International Aid. Yesterday, Philip Davies MP made the case against, and on Monday Jessica Epsey made the case in support of UK Aid spending.

"The truth? You can't handle the truth," said Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. That broadly sums up the mentality of the international development industry towards the taxpayers funding it. If the British Government applied the same principles of transparency, accountability, and value for money to the Department for International Development that it applies domestically, then many more lives would be saved.

However, it would be awkward as it would highlight, even more than at present, how much of the money is misspent.  The political calculation is that there is quite enough opposition to aid spending already, without attracting more controversy. Wouldn't greater exposure of corruption and waste further infuriate the electorate - perhaps prompting more Conservatives to switch to UKIP? Wouldn't cutting spending on some areas of Aid prompt hostile campaigns from those well funded "charities" that have their funding cuts? Perhaps. On the other hand, a policy of reducing overall Aid spending, but increasing its effectiveness, should not be impossible to get across. Claiming that spending more money is an achievement in itself is never a credible way to proceed.

Who does DFID champion? The poor in developing countries? Or their Governments - as well as the vast bureaucracy of middle men in international bodies who constitute a leaking hose that aid money is poured through before it even reaches governments, let alone the poor?

Continue reading "The wrong sort of Aid" »

3 Sep 2013 22:05:52

What Britain can do to help Syrians

By Paul Goodman
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Supporters and opponents of military intervention in Syria should be able to agree on a twin point.  First, that what is happening to Syrians themselves is a humanitarian disaster and, second, that the calamity which they are undergoing threatens to undermine Syria's neighbours - and Britain's interests.  The scale of suffering challenges description, so I take refuge in numbers.  According to DFID, there are almost seven million people in need of assistance in Syria, out of a total population of some 23 million.  Over four million have been displaced from their homes; almost two million have fled to other countries.  Half of all refugees are children.

Were Britain Syria, that's the equivalent of over 20 million people in need of food, water, medical care, shelter - or simply fled abroad: more than three times the population of London.  Were six million Britons to flee mostly to, say, France, Spain and Ireland, the consequences for those countries, especially the last, would be severe. So are the effects of the flight from Syria on Turkey; on Iraq, itself unstable; on Lebanon - which is even more so - and on Jordan, one of our main allies in the region (whose population has been driven up by some eight per cent - see the video report above).

Continue reading "What Britain can do to help Syrians" »

7 Aug 2013 08:32:43

Greening is right about aid transparency

Greening long
By Paul Goodman
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Oxfam is undoubtedly right to say that Dame Barbara Stocking, who was paid £119,560 as it Chief Executive, "could expect to earn at least £75,000 more for a comparable job in the private sector".  One might question why that that salary increased by 19 per cent in two years - she was paid £100,008 in 2009/10 - when inflation hasn't risen as fast, but the main point holds: by comparison with business, charity chief executives are not well paid.  Oxfam claims that "median pay of other large charity chief executives was £135,700". It was responding to a Daily Telegraph investigation which found that "the number of executives receiving six-figure salaries at Britain’s 14 leading foreign aid charities has risen by nearly 60 per cent, from 19 to 30, over the past three years".

Continue reading "Greening is right about aid transparency" »

20 Jun 2013 11:00:01

Key points from Owen Paterson's speech making the case for GM food

By Harry Phibbs
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Paul has already given some of the context of the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson's speech this morning making the case for GM food.

Mr Paterson soon made quite clear his own support for GM but added he was "conscious of the views
of those who have concerns and who need reassurance on this matter. I recognise that we – government, industry, the scientific community and others – owe a duty to the British public to reassure them that GM is a safe, proven and beneficial innovation. We must lead this discussion, explaining to the public not only what GM technology is but also how it can help."

The world's population is growing, which means we must produce more food:

The recent OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook for 2012 to 2021 concluded that agricultural production needs to increase by 60 per cent over the next 40 years to meet the rising demand for food. Our growing population will put further pressures on land, energy and water - creating a food security risk. We need to adopt new technologies, of which GM is one, if we are to combat this.

Already great progress has been made on productivity - "between 1967 and 2007 world food production increased by 115 per cent but land use only increased by eight per cent." The suggestion of a choice between greater food production or protecting the enviromenet was a "false premise." We mist do both and GM is helping.

Continue reading "Key points from Owen Paterson's speech making the case for GM food" »

8 Jun 2013 15:32:33

Now the good news.... the orange-fleshed sweet potato

By Harry Phibbs
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This morning in the Daily Telegraph Charles Moore called for more good news. Later this morning the Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech including an important piece of good news - it concerned the orange-fleshed sweet potato.

Mr Cameron said, of beating hunger:

It’s about harnessing the power of innovation to develop better seeds and more nutritious and productive crops……like the African breeder Robert Mwanga who bred the orange-fleshed sweet potato.

Regular sweet potatoes in Africa have little or no Vitamin A - an essential nutrient that prevents blindness and infant deaths. But just one scoop of orange sweet potato meets a child’s daily Vitamin A needs. And if you want to know the difference that makes – take the story of Maria Mchele a mother and farmer in Tanzania who for years struggled to grow enough even to feed her family.

When she began to farm the new orange sweet potato her life was transformed. Today she is not just providing nutritious food for her own family…….but selling it to others, educating her community and lifting herself out of poverty.

She has managed to send her children to school and used the proceeds of her farming to build a brick house for her family. And Maria is not alone. Programmes like this have helped local farmers to increase their incomes by up to 400 per cent.

But the orange-fleshed sweet potato production depends on profit not subsidy. On consumers wanting to buy it and producers finding it a viable crop. On free trade, low tax, multinational investment. On capitalism.

Continue reading "Now the good news.... the orange-fleshed sweet potato" »

22 Apr 2013 15:10:51

David Cameron doesn’t need to legislate for an aid target to meet his aid target

By Peter Hoskin
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The last Conservative manifesto contained a commitment not just to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on overseas aid, but also to ‘legislate in the first session of a new Parliament to lock in this level of spending for every year from 2013.’

The Coalition Agreement made a similar promise to ‘enshrine this commitment in law’.

But – what’s this? – today’s Times reports (£) that the legislation to enshrine the 0.7 per cent commitment into law will not be mentioned in this year’s Queen’s Speech, which will be delivered on 8th May. Three years into this Government, and this particular pledge still hasn’t been met.

At which point I should probably say that we at ConHome are – on the whole, and with all the usual caveats about transparency and efficiency, etc – sympathetic to the aid target. I won’t reheat the reasons here, not least because most of them are contained in Robert Halfon’s post for our Compassionate Conservatism series today.

But, even so, I still think there are good reasons for David Cameron not to enshrine the target in law – or at least understandable ones. Some of them are political: any attempt to legislate will provoke an awkward level of opposition from Tory backbenchers. We have already seen this in miniature, with Christopher Chope terminating the Labour MP Mark Hendrick’s efforts to this end.

And other reasons are more fiscal. As George Osborne confirmed during his Budget speech this year, Britain is going to become the first G8 country to achieve the aid target anyway. That hasn’t required reams of legislation. It’s just required a Chancellor with a mission.

Of course, the idea is that legislating for 0.7 per cent will dissuade other Chancellors from backing away from it in future. But, as important as the aid target is, I’d prefer our finance ministers to enjoy flexibility to act as the situation demands. As Labour’s child poverty targets have shown, legal requirements can quickly be subverted – and yet politicians still unfairly catch flak when they then try to take a different approach.

When it comes to enshrining the aid target in law, much depends on whether you believe manifesto commitments ought to be inviolable. But, in any case, given the polling, I doubt too many voters will weep if Mr Cameron gave this one a miss.

4 Apr 2013 07:51:18

Aid in a cold climate

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-04-04 at 05.04.04Until fairly recently, Select Committee enquiries were a courtly and decorous business, and reports were written and presented in a style of headline-defying narcolepsy.  Then culture change came, and they started to be - surprisingly often - sexed up.  John (now Lord) McFall hauled credit card company bosses before the Treasury Select Committee, when he chaired it during the last Parliament, to be scragged over usurious interest rates.  Keith Vaz was furthering the new ethos during this one when he summoned Russell Brand to give evidence about drug abuse.

And now we have Sir Malcolm Bruce, whose International Development Select Committee today publishes a report saying that Pakistan's elite doesn't pay its taxes, so British aid to the country shouldn't rise - in future, that is, if they don't pull their socks up: "We cannot advocate that the British people finance, through their own taxes, the proposed substantial increase in development assistance to Pakistan unless this wealthy minority demonstrates much keener interest in improving conditions for all," he writes in today's Daily Telegraph (£).  (See also the Times's spash.)

Sir Malcolm's logic invites probing.  If Pakistan is so corrupt (and relatively well-off, as the Times points out), why give it aid at all?  And if we are to slash aid in response to the misconduct of criminal elites, why stop at - rather than start with - Pakistan?  At one level, his committee's report looks like a venture to grab attention during Easter week.  At another, it is a sign of change in the political landscape. The austerity revolution has shaken MPs expenses, local government, "aggressive" tax avoidance and (as we're seeing this week) the welfare system.

I suspect it is coming soon to an aid charity near you.  Although I broadly share Tim Montgomerie's view on aid, I've tended not to write much about the subject to date.  I will look broadly at it soon but, for the moment, want to stick to a narrow point - namely, that this chill spring is also a cold climate for international development.  Were I one of the bigger aid charities or ventures, I would be looking very closely at my budget and spending, before Fleet Street gets there first.

30 Mar 2013 23:59:00

David Cameron celebrates hitting 0.7% overseas aid target in his Easter message

By Tim Montgomerie
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David Cameron once downplayed his faith but he used his Christmas message to suggest he took faith very seriously. His Easter message, just released, is also emphatic:

“I send my best wishes to all those in the United Kingdom and around the world celebrating Easter this year in what is an incredibly exciting time for the Christian faith worldwide.

This year’s Holy Week and Easter celebrations follow an extraordinary few days for Christians; not only with the enthronement of Justin Welby as our new Archbishop of Canterbury, but also with the election of Pope Francis in Rome.

In the Bible, Saint Peter reminds us of the hope that comes from new birth through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Christians, it also reminds us of Jesus’s legacy of generosity, tolerance, mercy, and forgiveness. That legacy lives on in so many Christian charities and churches both at home and abroad. Whether they are meeting the needs of the poor, helping people in trouble, or providing spiritual guidance and support to those in need, faith institutions perform an incredible role to the benefit of our society. As long as I am Prime Minister, they will have the support of this Government.

With that in mind, I am particularly proud to lead a Government that has kept its promise to invest 0.7 per cent of our gross national income on helping the world’s poorest*, and I am grateful that we have been able to partner with both Christian and non-Christian charities to relieve suffering overseas.

I hope you have a very happy Easter.”

I'm not sure it will convince George Carey however. The former Archbishop of Canterbury used an article in yesterday's Daily Mail to suggest that David Cameron was increasing British Christians' fears of persecution. Lord Bates was very unimpressed. In an article for ConHome the Tory peer argued that if anyone was to blame for Christianity's marginalisation it was churchleaders like Dr Carey who talked a lot about issues that weren't central to the lives of their declining flocks.

* Most Tory MPs in marginal seats told Matthew Parris of The Times that the PM was right to honour his aid commitments.