£14 billion and counting: what's the problem with Britain's burgeoning foreign aid budget?

by Jeremy Hutton, Policy Analyst

In 2017 the UK’s foreign aid budget hit an all-time high of £14.1 billion, an increase of £682 million on the previous year and approximately £6 billion more than was spent in 2012. Ever since David Cameron pledged that the UK would meet the UN’s 0.7 per cent of GDP Overseas Development Assistance target in 2013, the Department of International Development (DFID) has seen its budget grow quicker than it knows how to spend it. Whilst other government departments have to fight their corner against budget cuts, DFID is treated as a special case so that the UK can continuously meet the arbitrary 0.7 per cent target.

Although the positive effects of this aid are much debated, the position of taxpayers are clear. Year after year polling finds that UK taxpayers are consistent in wanting the British government to reduce aid expenditure. In 2013 YouGov found that 66% of people wanted aid spending decreased. Then in a 2016 poll, support for the 0.7 per cent target stood at a paltry 24 per cent; whilst in 2018 over 80 per cent thought foreign aid spending should be diverted towards the NHS. In our 2015 landmark report The Spending Plan the TaxPayers’ Alliance called for DFID to be abolished and development aid to be scrapped save for a small humanitarian relief budget.

Politicians have long been painfully aware how unpopular the target is. Ever since it became part of UK law, successive (and sceptical) secretaries of state have been appointed to DFID in an effort to appease the mass of both Conservative Party members and British taxpayers who are critical of aid spending. Former International Development Secretary Priti Patel once called for DFID to be scrapped before she took up the post in 2016, and managed to enact some significant reforms such as cracking down on unscrupulous supply practices. Patel’s successor, Penny Mordaunt, has made similar welcome steps by opening up aid to private development money. However, there simply isn’t the appetite amongst MPs for any meaningful reversal of Cameron’s target.

Currently the aid debate remains in gridlock.

Recent events, however, have begun to highlight the flaws in the rules surrounding the UK international development model. When multiple Caribbean islands were left devastated by multiple hurricanes in late 2017, stringent OECD rules meant they were ineligible to receive Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) because of their levels of wealth prior to the disaster. Though the UK has since won a change in these rules, this only happened around a year after the islands were first struck.


It is shocking that the UK faces such restrictions when attempting to help those in need, and it should continue to press for further changes to international aid rules. But renegotiating multilateral treaties is a slow process, and the government is presently rather busy negotiating with another multilateral body over a little thing called ‘Brexit.’


So it is time to give politicians a push into taking a serious look at how the UK does spend that £14 billion. To do just that, the TaxPayers’ Alliance will over the course of 2019 produce multiple research papers examining both what British international aid goes towards, and changes the British government could enact to make it more acceptable to British taxpayers.


Examples are everywhere of UK foreign aid being wasted or even the effects of that aid being mis-reported. One DFID-funded project in Zambia was reported by aid workers to have built fully functioning latrines to 15 villages; yet independent researchers afterwards found that less than half of the 15 villages had in fact received the full range of promised facilities. In Nigeria, a UNICEF-administered education project was found to have made ‘no major improvement’ in learning. Yet despite this clear failure, UNICEF was again awarded funding worth over £120 million to continue the project for a further seven years. In both these cases, British taxpayers’ money has been outsourced to international organisations which have failed to produce the results the government expects.


These are just two examples of many which, if they continue to appear, will further undermine public confidence in the British aid approach. The current gridlock is a status quo of the worst kind. As far as the public are concerned, whilst this target remains a legal requirement, their money is being wasted. Politicians need new ideas to address the public’s concerns. Keep an eye out for research by the TaxPayers’ Alliance in the new year doing just that.

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