The Tory right are wrong: the 0.7% aid target is not just moral but smart

The aid recipients of today can become the trading partners of tomorrow. Cutting now would be a betrayal of the poor and our national interest.

Somalis displaced by famine queue at a food aid distribution centre in Mogadishu on January 19, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

The UN have compared the devastation in the Philippines to the Boxing Day Tsunami, the Red Cross described the scene as "bedlam", and hardened journalists on the ground say they have never seen anything like it before.

There is no question that the scene in Tacloban and much of the Philippines represents a full-blown humanitarian crisis – more than 4,000 dead, over 13 million affected and three million displaced. One week on, as aid slowly begins to trickle through, experts warn we are entering the peak danger zone for the spread of infectious diseases. And with sanitation and clean water scarce, dysentery, diarrhoea and E.Coli are now real and growing threats.

Here at home, the British people have once again responded with tremendous generosity. We all know times are tough, yet still the DEC appeal has already raised over £35m – and during a week in which Children in Need also raised over £30m. Of this we should all be proud.

And as sure as night follows day, as aid comes once again into the spotlight, it is no surprise that the siren voices of the Tory right are calling for a reduction in the help this country gives to those in desperate need. In a week when the British people have shown such extraordinary generosity that’s not just utterly out of touch – it’s wrong headed too.

It all comes down to a simple question. What sort of world do we want? Safe, prosperous and fair would be pretty near the top of most people’s lists. That is part of what international development is for.

In the five minutes it will take you to read this, more than 400 children will be immunised against preventable diseases thanks to projects supported by British aid. Because of that programme, 500,000 lives will be saved - 500,000 individual tragedies prevented. 

But a simple truth remains - far, far too many aren’t getting a fair chance in life. So the moral case for keeping our promise on overseas aid is overwhelming. Lives are saved, children are educated and communities get a fair chance thanks to the generosity of the British people. We should take great pride in that.

But giving aid isn’t just a moral choice - it’s the smart choice, too. The world today is interconnected like never before. Our national interest, our economy and our security, depends on the stability of many of those countries supported by DFID.

As a trading nation, we know exporting more will help us tackle some of the structural problems in our economy. And the aid recipients of today can become the trading partners of tomorrow. Where once we gave aid to South Korea, now they are one of our fastest growing markets. Helping South Korea, then, is helping us now.

That’s what international aid is about. Aid isn't about charity; it’s about human dignity. Reducing the need for aid in the future, helping countries create their own wealth and prosperity. More South Koreas, more trading partners and more opportunities for Britain.

And a fairer, more prosperous world is a safer world too. Depravation and inequality lead to desperation and illegality; conflict over scarce recourses and the vile trade in exploited people and a multitude of refugee crises. In many fragile states, youth unemployment runs at over 80%. In today’s globalised world, that’s not just a lack of human opportunity, but also a danger to us all.

As I’ve long argued, the best defence policy can sometimes be world class diplomacy. A more stable world means a safer UK. British aid supports fragile and conflict-ridden states, helps bring them out of the danger zone, and prevents the sort of conditions that breed radicalisation, violence and war. The right thing to do and the smart thing to do. How different could things be today if the world had invested more in securing Afghanistan and Somalia decades ago?

What happens in the rest of the world has an impact on us. That’s why the last Labour government led the international community in development. And we achieved a huge amount – we convinced the world to drop the debt at Gleneagles in 2005, and in 2008 we argued for and won new international commitments on malaria, food, education and health.

Under Labour, this country made a promise to the world that we would give 0.7% of our Gross National Income to overseas aid, a promise that David Cameron has rightly pledged to uphold. That’s not a commitment we can just walk away from - it wouldn’t be right and it wouldn’t be in the national interest.

Britain’s commitment to 0.7% shouldn’t just be about a rebranding exercise for the Tories - it is deeper than that. It tells you about who we are as a country. 0.7% says we are committed to a safe, prosperous and fair world for everyone.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make sure every penny is well spent. Value for money is always important but in these difficult times iron discipline across every government department is absolutely vital - including at International Development. So Labour are clear - we will have a zero tolerance approach to failure, corruption and waste.

In a field where a few pence can save a life, we should seek not to waste a penny. As we build a new global covenant to replace the Millennium Development Goals, we must give what we promised, but we should go further - we must keep innovating, keep improving, and make sure every pound is spent wisely.

Jim Murphy is shadow international development secretary