Think tank plan to cut aid would cost millions of lives

Capping the international development budget would send out the wrong signal to the rest of the worl

Another day, another right-wing think tank calling for the international aid budget to be cut. This time it is the Centre for Policy Studies and the proceeds are to be spent on tax cuts, including scrapping the 50p income tax rate. Putting aside whether tax cuts are the best way to spend extra funding, is capping the DFID budget at the 2010/11 for the next two years really a good way to save £1.3bn?

It would mean that Britain would fail to reach the UN target of spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on overseas aid, a promise that all three major political parties made at the last election. It would also mean that the UK no longer had credibility to criticise other G8 countries, like Italy, for failing to meet the promises they made at Gleneagles. And finally, it would signal to other G8 countries that it is OK to cut aid spending during a downturn and, in the words of Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell, to "balance the books on the backs of the world's poorest people".

At a more practical level, the CPS report devotes just three paragraphs to explaining how £1.3bn could be cut from the aid budget and makes just two arguments for why this is a good idea.

The first is that:

India is establishing its own aid agency, distributing $11 billion over the next ten years, raising questions as to why the UK still grants it, and other large countries, substantial sums of aid.

I'll try and answer these questions for them: India is home to more people living in poverty (those living life on less than $1.25 a day) than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. The UK's aid budget devoted to India is just short of £300m a year and almost half of it is spent on healthcare, tackling maternal mortality and malaria, the main killers of women and children.

When I worked for DFID, I was lucky enough to visit a slum in West Bengal where UK taxpayers' money had paid for the installation of toilets and basic sanitation: clean running water and a sewer system for waste. I was humbled. Perhaps the Indian government should have paid for it, rather than for a space programme, but it's hard to look a child in the face and make that argument, even through an interpreter. While India has huge wealth, it also has huge inequality and the UK's promise to help people in absolute poverty should be honoured.

The other CPS argument is that:

Aid itself should focus on emergency relief and correcting for market failures in health issues; not on capital projects.

Just across the border from India, in another "large country", the UK taxpayer invests £150m a year in Pakistan. Some of this is spent on health issues and yet more is spent on emergency relief, like when the region was devastated by flooding earlier this year. But if the UK taxpayer turned their back on capital projects, the 255,000 people made homeless would have been left to live in tents. A fifth of the DFID budget in Pakistan is spent on "Governance", a direct up-stream attempt to prevent conflict, instability and ultimately terrorism on the streets of the UK. Another fifth of the budget is spent on education, literally building schools so that primary age children can learn to read and one day get jobs trading with UK companies.

Cutting the UK aid budget by £1.3bn is easy to write into a think tank report but far harder to do. If the entire UK aid budget for India and Pakistan was cut, you would still be looking for nearly £1bn more in savings. If you cut the entire admin budget of the department (meaning they would literally have no staff left) you could only save £214m. To find this level of savings, you would need to cut the entire contribution to the United Nations and the World Bank or cut the entire bilateral aid programme for the whole of sub-Saharan Africa by more than 75 per cent.

Irrespective of the whether CPS are right to argue for tax breaks, whatever way you cut it, taking £1.3bn from the UK aid budget would cost millions of lives across the developing world. They should think again.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR and was Special Adviser at DFID 2007-2010

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

The electoral pool they are fishing in is shallow – perhaps even non-existent. 

The press and Labour’s political opponents are hammering Jeremy Corbyn over his party's pledge/ambition/cruel lie to win an election (delete depending on your preference) to not only abolish tuition fees for new students, but to write off the existing debts of those who have already graduated.

Labour has conceded (or restated, again, depending on your preference) that this is merely an “ambition” – that the party had not pledged to wipe out existing tuition fee debt but merely to scrap fees.

The party’s manifesto and the accompanying costings document only included a commitment to scrap the fees of students already in the system. What the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are claiming as a pledge is the following remark, made by Jeremy Corbyn in his Q&A with NME readers:

“First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether. We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it. Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden. I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem. And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”

Is this a promise, an aspiration or a target? The answer probably depends on how you feel about Jeremy Corbyn or fees policy in general. (My reading, for what it’s worth, is that the full quote looks much more like an objective than a promise to my eyes but that the alternative explanation is fair enough, too.)

The more interesting question is whether or not there is an electoral prize to be had, whether from the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, for hammering Labour on this topic. On that one the answer is open and shut: there really isn’t one.

Why not? Because the evidence is clear: that pledging to abolish tuition fees largely moves two groups of voters: students who have yet to graduate and actually start paying back the fees, and their parents and grandparents, who are worried about the debt burden.

There is not a large caucus of fee-paying graduates – that is, people who have graduated and are earning enough to start paying back their tuition fees – who are opposed to the system. (We don’t have enough evidence but my expectation is that the parents of people who have already graduated are also less fussed. They can see that their children are not crippled by tuition fee debt, which forms a negligible part of a graduate’s tax and living expenses, as opposed to parents who are expecting a worrying future for their children who have yet to graduate.)

Put simply, there isn’t a large group of people aged 21 or above voting for Corbyn who are that concerned about a debt write-off. Of those that are, they tend to have an ideological stance on the value of a higher education system paid for out of general taxation – a stance that makes it much harder for the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats to peel those votes off.

The whole thing is a bit of a blind alley for the parties of the centre and right. The Tory difficulty at this election wasn’t that they did badly among 18-21s, though they did do exceptionally badly. With the exception of the wave year of 1983, they have always tended to do badly with this group. Their problem is that they are doing badly with 30-45s, usually the time in life that some younger Labour voters begin to vote Conservative, largely but not exclusively because they have tended to get on the property ladder.

Nowadays of course, that cohort, particularly in the south of England, is not getting on the property ladder and as a result is not turning blue as it ages. And that’s both a bigger worry and a more lucrative electoral target for Labour’s opponents than litigating an NME interview.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.