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 won a monumental victory - but it's more delicate than it looks

The need for peace on the left is overwhelming. 

It is perverse, absurd even, that in the aftermath of such a monumental victory Jeremy Corbyn must immediately talk of coalition building and compromise. Previous winners of internal struggles – most notably Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock – certainly did nothing of the sort, and Corbyn’s victory is bigger than theirs. To an extent, this is not the victory of one set of ideas but the establishment of a new party altogether – with a completely different centre of gravity and an almost completely new membership. 

That new Labour party – and core project that has built around Corbyn’s leadership – is itself a delicate network of alliances. The veterans of big social movements, from the Iraq War to the anti-austerity protests of 2011, find themselves in bed with left-leaning cosmopolitan modernisers and the reanimated remnants of the old Labour left. All parts of the coalition have reason for hubris, to believe that this new formation – complex enough as it is already, and filled with ideas and energy – can carry the Corbyn project into Number 10 with or without the co-operation of his Labour colleagues and the wider left. 

That vision is a mirage. Labour has undergone the biggest membership surge in its history, and is now the biggest left of centre party in Europe. As John Curtis has pointed out, the party’s support has maintained a high floor relative to the level of infighting and sniping over the summer, in part because of Corbyn’s strong appeal to Labour’s base. But the bleak electoral outlook, compounded by boundary changes, requires us to do more than read out lines from pre-written scripts. We must all, from a position of strength, stare death in the face.

The terms of peace with the Labour right must be negotiated carefully. There can be no negotiating away of internal democracy in the selection of candidates or national policy-setting; doing so would permanently weaken the left’s hand and allow Corbyn’s detractors in parliament to run riot. And in policy terms, Corbyn cannot compromise basic anti-austerity principles – not just because doing so would be a betrayal that would demobilise Labour’s new base, but because the project of triangulation pioneered by Ed Milliband is a tried and tested electoral failure. 

And yet the need for peace is overwhelming. At a grassroots level, Owen Smith’s support was not made up of hardened Blairites. Many of them, unlike Smith himself, really did share Corbyn’s political vision but had been ground down and convinced that, regardless of the rights and wrongs, there could be no end to Labour’s civil war without new leadership. The left’s job is to prove those people, and the politicians who claim to represent them, wrong. 

Labour’s assorted hacks – on left and right – often forget how boring and irrelevant the search for Labour’s soul looks to a wider public that long ago left behind party tribalism. The intellectual task ahead of us is about framing our politics in a comprehensible, modernising way – not creating a whole new generation of people who know Kinnock’s 1985 conference speech by rote. 

A united Labour Party, free to focus on shifting the consensus of British politics could well change history. But the grim realities of the situation may force us to go even further. To get a majority at the next election, Labour will need to gain 106 seats – a swing not achieved since 1997. 

Add to that the socially conservative affirmation of the Brexit vote, and the left’s profound confusion in terms of what to do about it, and the challenge of getting a Labour Prime Minister – regardless of who they are or what they stand for – looks like an unprecedented challenge. That unprecedented challenge could be met by an unprecedented alliance of political forces outside the Labour party as well as inside it. 

In order for Labour to win under the conditions set by the boundary review, everything has to be calibrated right. Firstly, we need an energised, mass party which advocates radical and popular policies. Secondly, we need the party not to tear itself apart every few months. And yes, finally, we may well need an honest, working arrangement between Labour, the Greens, and other progressive parties, including even the Lib Dems. 

Exactly how that alliance would be constituted – and how far it would be under the control of local parties – could be the matter of some debate. But there is every chance of it working – especially if the terms of the next general election take place in the context of the outcome of a Brexit negotiation. 

The starting point for that journey must be a recognition on the part of Corbyn’s opponents that the new Labour party is not just the overwhelming democratic choice of members, but also – with a mass activist base and a mostly popular programme – the only electable version of the Labour party in the current climate. For the left’s part, we must recognise that the coalition that has built around Corbyn is just the core of a much wider set of alliances – inside Labour and perhaps beyond.