Re-humanising Aid: Why Our Foreign Aid Budget Matters


Published 28 th April 2015 by Daniel Kirkpatrick

UK Foreign Aid
Source:DFID
This election has had one particular debate which I have found particularly disturbing: our foreign aid budget. Whilst it is right that we consider whether this UK tax-payer money is being spent wisely, with over £11.4bn going towards aid last year [1], arguments such as those aired by UKIP - "Trade not Aid" [2] -that we should be supporting those at home before helping those abroad, are reframing the debate in a dangerous and unhelpful direction.

Let's dissect some of these claims. What is our aid money actually being spent on? Take the top 20 countries the UK gave oversees development aid (ODA) in 2013, of them 14 were undergoing an armed conflict - that is 70% [3]. Of this money the majority goes into health projects (£1.3bn), education (£0.9bn) Government and civil society (£0.84bn) and humanitarian aid (£0.83bn) [4]. These are all sectors identified as crucial following the outbreak of a conflict, as infrastructure breaks down, civilians often have to flee their homes, becoming refugees in other countries, or else internally displaced persons (IDPs) within their own. To understand the scale of such issues consider the statistics by the UNHCR with 51.2m IDPs and 16.7m refugees globally [5] meaning there are 51.2 million people around the world, many of whom are living in the countries we give aid to, without homes, water sanitation, basic nutrition, or adequate security. The current debate on our aid budget has de-humanised these people to mere statistics; we need to stop thinking about our aid in terms of, 'what do I get from this?' to, 'do I care about humanity?'.

Even if you don't accept this, providing aid can be a powerful way of soft power, improving the UK's relations across the world, developing economic trading partnerships, and our ability to affect change. With military power increasingly becoming ineffective, soft power like aid is only becoming more and more important; see for example the priority China currently places on its aid budget [6].

But let us then compare this to the situation facing our nation, as often it is argued that we should help our own before helping those abroad. In the UK the sick have free health care; the unemployed job security benefits; the homeless some access to housing benefits; the oppressed access to legal aid; the victimised a legitimate police force; the poor free education. Of course this nation has deep issues evident in the number of food banks, NHS waiting times, and overcrowded accommodation but these would barely be influenced by the meagre 0.7% of our GDP that we give each year to help the world's most disadvantaged.

So re-humanising the debate, where does this leads us? It leads us to consider much more critically and constructively just how our government actually spends its aid budget. For it is all well and good saying we should give money to help combat poverty but often we can be so misguided that we end up perpetuating the very thing we are trying to prevent [7].

Currently the government is prioritising economic goals to help drive sustainable development yet, reading through the Government's publications on aid, it is impossible to identify any clear projects other than a handful of low-budget case studies. In fact, it is not at all clear how the government comes to make decisions on aid other than political considerations which would usually result in poor decisions based on under-researched proposals. It seems that because the budget relates to oversees spending, little accountability is actually sought as it doesn't directly affect the majority of the voting public. But if aid matters, as I believe it does, then we need to pursue a system which is evidence led rather than politically led; reform of foreign aid requires greater oversight not from political elites or bureaucrats but rather professional practitioners and experts.

Aid matters. Without it we are failing many around the world and denying their humanity. Instead of arguing 'Why Aid?', let us make it work better, go further and ensure that the UK's role in the world is a positive one.


[1]Anderson, Mark, "UK passes bill to honour pledge of 0.7% foreign aid target", The Guardian, March 9th 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/mar/09/uk-passes-bill-law-aid-target-percentage-income

[2] Ukip Manifesto 2015.

[3] See UPSALA Armed Conflict dataset.

[4] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/403381/SID-2014-revised-UNDP-figure-feb15.pdf

[5] http://www.unhcr.org.uk/about-us/key-facts-and-figures.html

[6] Provost, Claire; Harris, Rich. "China commits billions in aid to Africa as part of charm offensive", The Guardian, 29th April 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/interactive/2013/apr/29/china-commits-billions-aid-africa-interactive

[7] Martin Plaut, "Ethiopia famine aid 'spent on weapons'", BBC, updated 3 rd March 2010. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8535189.stm