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