Cutting foreign aid is no way to respond to the floods

Farage is relying on misconceptions about the scale, purpose and outcomes of aid spending to argue for this cynical raid.

Nigel Farage is enjoying a surge of popularity in submerged swathes of southern England. Local radio stations claim his call to divert the foreign aid budget to shore up the flood response has got listeners chorusing their support. It is the kind of argument which understandably appeals to people facing deep uncertainty. Yet Farage’s populist instincts reveal a disconcerting capacity to cloud the vision of voters and use the world’s poorest people to animate his core vote ahead of the European elections. Politicians of other parties should close ranks to repel this latest attack on the aid budget and demonstrate why the British people can be trusted to face the facts about international development. 

The argument has morphed a little as the days have gone by. It has gone from being a call to halt all foreign aid to a more nuanced raid on smaller aspects of aid spending. Whatever way you look at it, it is wrong on at least three fronts. Firstly, it assumes the aid budget is too big. Secondly, it suggests that dealing with suffering in Britain can only be done by compounding suffering elsewhere, and thirdly, it ignores the realities of government.  

It’s easy to forget that Britain’s aid budget comes in at 0.7 per cent of our national wealth. It’s less in total than we spend on fizzy drinks in a year. With 99 per cent of our spending happening "at home", it’s not accurate to suggest that charity does not already begin at home – just look at the Red Cross for starters. Even with this relatively small amount of money we make a massive difference. The former Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, was fond of pointing out that Britain sends 5 million of the world’s poorest children to school for just 2.5 per cent of the cost of sending the same number of children to school here in the UK. A little bit goes a long way. Furthermore we are four years into a coalition government which has put results and value for money at the core of its approach to aid. Independent experts scrutinise every element of DFID spending and ministers don’t hesitate to turn off the taps at the first sign of corruption overseas. So while it has never been perfect, when you look at aid in perspective, it’s not such sizeable drain on our resources.

Farage is relying on misconceptions about the scale, purpose and outcomes of aid spending to argue for this cynical raid on a budget which supports people who are the poorest of the poor. These are people who struggle to manage a meal of basic carbohydrate a day, have no permanent shelter, drink from puddles and, in some cases, are dodging militia that rape and kill at will. The idea that the same British people who dug so generously into their pockets to support the victims of Typhoon Haiyan (which affected 9 million people) or refugees from the Syrian conflict (around 2.5 million) would want to see that money sent back because of the recent floods (directly affecting around 10,000 people) is nonsensical. There are thousands of British people suffering right now, but it doesn’t make sense to meet misery with more misery. It would mean giving with one hand and taking with the other – and there are no insurance policies, government agencies or campaigning media for the world’s poor to call on.

It is no surprise that people coping with the threat that flooding brings to homes and livelihoods feel that the government should be doing all it can to support them – and it should. But there are at least three government departments with a responsibility towards the UK flood victims. The Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs is one. If you consider the fact that the floods are increasingly thought to be linked the climate change, the Department for Energy and Climate Change is another, not to mention the contingency funds held by the Treasury for dealing with expensive unexpected circumstances such as these. If we’re looking for ways to find extra money, cutting existing subsidies on the use of fossil fuels might be a good place to start.

As Eric Pickles noted, part of the aid budget is used to fund efforts to deal with the cause and effects of climate change in other parts of the world – which contribute to climate change here in southern England. If for a minute you took the suggestion of diverting funds seriously, you would see that while the government’s decision not to enshrine the 0.7 per cent commitment in law means that, technically, the UK could turn off the aid taps, the reality of such a decision would jeopardise jobs and livelihoods across the world. It would take months, if not years, to take effect, by which time hopefully the effects of the floods will be a memory not a reality. Such dodgy accounting might win short-term popularity but it’s a recipe for long-term problems.  Not to mention how it would damage the effectiveness of remaining aid spending.

The aid budget is not a perfect tool for helping people in Africa but using it to try and fund flood relief in Somerset would be like choosing to bail out their backyards with a thimble. It might do the job eventually, but surely we’ve got something better suited to the task. Starting with the Treasury’s contingency budget, which, at 2 per cent of national spending, is far bigger than the aid budget. Any serious politician should know that.

Jonathan Tanner is Media and Public Affairs Officer at the Overseas Development Institute

Nigel Farage wades in water as he visits a flooded property at Burrowbridge on the Somerset Levels on February 9, 2014 near Bridgwater. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jonathan Tanner is Media and Public Affairs Officer at the Overseas Development Institute

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.