We can criticise and be proud of foreign aid at the same time
14 June 2016
This article was originally published on the Huffington Post.
Twenty-five years ago, foreign secretary Douglas Hurd issued an order to overrule the advice of Britain's top aid official, Sir Tim Lankester, and commit £234m of UK aid to building the Pergau hyrdro-electric dam in Malaysia, which Lankester had warned was "uneconomic" and "a very bad buy".
This fateful decision in July 1991 was to be at the heart of the historic high court victory we helped secure as campaigners at the then World Development Movement (now renamed Global Justice Now) three years later.
Through two parliamentary enquiries, a National Audit Office probe, a ceaseless media, public and lobbying campaign – and finally through the courts, the truth came out. Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister, and her defence minister had secretly promised aid for the uneconomic dam to Malaysian prime minster Mahathir Mohammed, in return for his ordering warplanes from Britain.
Our long-haul campaign, from grubby offices in a South London backstreet, against the pillaging of the aid budget to serve narrow commercial and strategic interests was successful. The judge ordered the government return millions to the aid budget. More significantly, the case helped ring the death-knell for the notorious Aid Trade Provision (ATP), which used aid to help British companies win contracts.
Moreover initiatives to focus aid more effectively on fighting poverty made huge headway. The win on quality was followed by one on quantity as Labour, Coalition and Conservative governments committed to grow the aid budget to 0.7% of national income, which Britain hit in 2013.
Today, the UK parliament will debate whether to keep that target. We are proud to say that they should.
Not because all aid is perfect. It certainly is not. But those aid naysayers who reel out an anecdotal list of "bad aid" projects, and say: "There you are, that proves we should cut the aid budget," are wrong.
Last week an NHS hospital A&E department was revealed to be appallingly managed. Were there calls to axe the NHS budget? No – instead people demanded an end to that instance of mismanagement. We should react in the same way to examples of bad aid.
In fact, aid spending is almost certainly the most scrutinised of all government budgets.
Not only is it subject to the National Audit Office and a parliamentary select committee, but also its own independent aid watchdog, the Independent Commission on Aid Impact.
You can track how British aid is spent through the Independent Aid Transparency Initiative, or check the views of international organisations who monitor aid.
aid spending is almost certainly the most scrutinised of all government budgets
Finally, it comes down to one question: is Britain leading the world, or retreating from it?
To lead the world is to set the standard for aid that makes a significant difference. To have a long-term national security strategy that supports those building peaceful societies, and stops extremism in its tracks. To address the education deficit that holds back half the world’s people, and reduce the number of children dying before the age of five – already down by half since 2000 – so that death-by-birthplace becomes a thing of the past.
Like it or not, we cannot shut the rest of the planet out of our little island in the North Sea. So it seems to us that helping families facing poverty around the world is not about being a naïve do-gooder. It's about, in the long-run, protecting our own children – about our own hard-nosed self-interest.
By working in developing countries to support their economies and societies, we are in fact making ourselves more secure.
That's why we are also ready to stand up and applaud when aid is well used, and support those tackling poverty, or risking their lives to build peace. We can recognise Britain's contribution to ending the war in Sierra Leone, for example and then its efforts to help overcome the Ebola outbreak, a threat for West Africa and beyond.
And now, UK funding is helping tackle another global menace: the Zika virus.
If anything, we need more not less aid to cope with the crisis in Syria, for example, to invest both in supporting refugees and their host communities, ensuring that Syrian children in exile get an education, while also backing those in Syria building peace between communities from the ground up. By working in developing countries to support their economies and societies, we are in fact making ourselves more secure.
So today, when parliament debates whether Britain should keep its recent commitment to devote 7p in every £10 of our national wealth to aid, we will be confidently declaring, alongside politicians from all sides of the house, that we are #ProudOfAid.