Photo by Mat Napo

Follow the money

We need to reset the overseas development aid discussion

Artillery Row

What do you think is the better deal: three meals out with cockroaches scurrying round your feet and burnt food on the menu, or one meal out with a pool-side view, Michelin starred food, and great company? The second, of course, because I would imagine that you would not be fooled into thinking that quantity superseded quality. Yet this perspective has been lost in the recent foreign aid discussions. The omission of the core evaluation question we need to ask about with the donation of money has misled many people into focusing on the arbitrary figure over the more important questions.

Last week, the Prime Minister set out the case for temporarily reducing the UK international aid budget from 0.7 per cent of gross national income to 0.5 per cent – a roughly £4.4 billion reduction due to the colossal domestic deficit resulting from the over £400 billion Covid-19 spending. It was voted in. 

But, the move was not without significant backlash and fury from all parts of the political spectrum, including many high profile Tories. Theresa May MP said the decision amounted to “turning our back to some of the poorest” and former Prime Minister John Major waded in to say it was the “stamp of Little England, not Great Britain”. Scathing words from political heavyweights suggest that Britain has lost its moral compass. 

Yet, a central part of the message is missing. Most people, regardless of their theory of change for aid spending, agree that development assistance should be directed to help alleviate poverty for the world’s poorest. The hard reality is that the general public might not know exactly where the money has been spent. 

The UK has dug deep into its pockets to fund oppressive regimes

The first hard truth about our recent history of aid spending is that the UK has dug deep into its pockets to fund oppressive regimes. During the same time that some parliamentarians were being blacklisted by China for speaking out publicly on the flagrant abuses against freedom of religion and arguably state-sponsored genocide of the Uyghur people of the Xinjiang region, the £70-80 million annual British gift to China continued. It’s not surprising that MPs requested a review into this spending last year notwithstanding the human rights record, China is the world’s second largest economy. It was only as a result of the formal aid reduction that Dominic Raab MP announced a 95 per cent reduction to what we give the Chinese Communist Party.

Pakistan has also been a key beneficiary of overseas spending, receiving over £300 million last year, making it the largest country programme. Yet, the country is repeatedly subject to accusations of religious persecution from blasphemy laws which threaten critics of Islam with death. Open Doors, which annually monitors countries where citizens face the most extreme persecution, has ranked Pakistan as the fifth worst country in the world for Christians due to severe Islamic oppression. Only last week, Sir Edward Leigh MP called for the Home Secretary to help a Pakistani Christian girl who was abducted, forcibly married to a much older Muslim man, and is now facing death threats, all because she ran away from her tormentor. The Pakistani regime failed to protect her. 

The abortion-related spending since the dire report has not changed

The second hard truth about aid spending is that the UK has shown sheer determination to heavily fund abortion in the developing world. Despite polling showing that 65 per cent of the people categorically do not want British taxpayers’ money to fund foreign abortions, the Department for International Development (“DFID”, now FCDO) has been resolute on prioritising it. In 2018, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (“ICAI”) awarded it a red-amber warning for its maternal health spending, for reasons including fudging the numbers of maternal lives saved and diverting spending away from helping mothers during labour and looking after their babies, towards encouraging them to have an abortion instead. 

Indeed, it’s hard to see how any of the recommendations given by the independent scrutinisers of maternal health funding were taken to heart at all by DFID. They haven’t specifically responded to the recommendations of ICAI, and haven’t shown any clear determination to intentionally prioritising care for women and babies through improving maternal health services over facilitating abortions. 

The abortion-related spending since the dire report has also not changed. From 2010 – 2020, the average approximate figure of £1 billion has been budgeted on bilateral abortion or population related programmes abroad, after management company fees are included, according to information available on the development tracker. This includes £1 billion to holistic MSI Reproductive Choices programmes and £220 million to International Planned Parenthood (“IPPF”) initiatives. Even after the ICAI report was published, 3 out of 4 maternal health-related programmes created have involved an element of “reproductive healthcare”, a pseudonym for abortion services, given to various partners. This does not include the millions of multilateral funding given to abortion services through the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Population Fund since the report. These are huge figures, for intentional purposes. Yet now, IPPF possibly the world’s most powerful abortion lobby group even want to take the government to court over cutting their funding, with the director-general ironically saying it would mean “thousands of lives” lost.

This is not to say that all foreign aid spending is bad far from it. The UK can be rightly praised for being one of the largest global donors to the developing world, having been far more generous than most of our closest comparator nations. UK aid programmes have been instrumental in helping provide emergency support to developing countries plagued by the devastation of war or natural disasters, strengthening local medical facilities to respond to the scourge of rampant diseases, and training and empowering local people in skills to lift themselves out of poverty.

We should not assume that all foreign aid achieves these aims, however. We should certainly not assume that the general public would be in agreement with all aid spending if they knew about the recipients or destinations. Perhaps a frank conversation about the programmes currently being funded and those chosen to be scrapped with the budget restrictions would be a more profitable discussion.

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