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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.