Yesterday I debated the United Kingdom's approach to foreign aid on the BBC Radio 4 PM programme against Sir Desmond Swayne, a former Minister of State in the Department of International Development (DfID). There's a link to the programme at the bottom of this page but I thought I'd also put together my views in this blog.
The commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of our national income on foreign aid is now entrenched in law. The problem with ring-fencing a budget is that we end up measuring the success of a project by the amount of money we put into it rather than the results. Spending becomes the goal, not the outcome. How much money is to be spent on something should depend on the viability of the project, expected results, and so on and not by the sincerity of the good intention with which it leaves these shores.
DfID does some excellent work across the world and we can certainly be proud of some of the work it does, but it isn't perfect. There are too many cases where the money does not reach the neediest or the poorest in the world and that is not just an insult to British taxpayers, but it is also letting the world's neediest down. We often seem to think that we've done our duty by sending these huge sums of money out of the country, giving ourselves a big tick without actually finding out what the outcome of that funding has been.
I don't think it's acceptable to say that because DfID purports to do something good and overall a lot of people are helped we should not be concerned about the huge amounts wasted. That attitude, other than being completely unfair to hard-pressed families in this country, also seems a little bit patronising. We wouldn't accept that sort of money being wasted in this country. Why wouldn't we expect the same standard of transparency and scrutiny from the recipient countries?
It may even be the case that some years we need to spend more on aid than 0.7%, if there is an outbreak like ebola or something similarly terrible, but equally, there may be other years when that amount would be much smaller. Again, what's important is to see that the money is actually reaching the people it's meant for and delivering results for those who truly need it.
This is an excerpt from the National Audit Office's report titled, Managing the Official Development Assistance target from January 2015
"In May 2013, DfID identified that the 2013 target was unlikely to be met from its planned programme. It had to increase its 2013 expenditure by up to 10% [...] Given the limited time available the Department could only choose activities where funds could be paid out during 2013. It may therefore have missed opportunities to get the best outcomes from this spending."
The ring-fencing creates a perverse situation where spending the allotted funds within an arbitrary time period becomes priority over identifying worthy and viable projects which would actually benefit the world. This is not good practice, this cannot be the way to deliver effective aid.
Listen to the full interview below: