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Don't let anyone tell you that you can cut overseas aid painlessly

We should always care about value for money - but we should be proud of our commitment to the world's poorest. 

This week has seen a further salvo of attacks on British overseas aid, but we should instead be starting 2017 with a grown-up conversation about the role of aid in defining Britain's values, responsibilities and place in the world.

Some charges levelled against aid merit investigation. The terms on which Department for International Development contracts are awarded must be subjected to proper scrutiny and debate. So should the salaries - mine included - of senior management in aid agencies, to ensure we balance attracting skilled staff with abiding by the values we stand for.

Priti Patel, the Secretary of State for International Development, has signalled a zero tolerance approach to waste - and quite right too. Value-for-money is not an abstract concept. It is about ensuring that every pound spent has the biggest possible impact.

However, the argument made by some critics is not only that we should scrutinise British aid more rigorously; it is that we should slash Britain’s aid commitments. 

Recent attacks include criticism of aid policy like cash-transfers, which have been proven to be both life-saving and highly efficient. There is a danger that this debate ends up being fueled only by political opposition to the very concept of British aid rather than based in clear-headed analysis of impact and value for money.  

Just as we should be brutally honest about whether British aid delivers bang for buck, so we should be equally frank about what reducing aid would mean.

I have heard it said that Britain can still do its bit for the poorest while at the same time reducing what we spend on overseas aid. This fits the maxim that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Cutting British aid would mean fewer children vaccinated against viruses that will kill them before their fifth birthday.

Cutting British aid would mean closing shelters, health centres and classrooms that we have built in refugee camps around Syria to care for children who have fled for their lives.

Cutting British aid would mean more girls out of school and exposed to the risks of child labour or child marriage.

Cutting British aid would also mean that next time a disease such as Ebola strikes, developing countries will be less prepared and we may unable to mobilise British doctors and nurses to fight its spread.

In Yemen, where a combination of war and poverty have created near-famine conditions, Save the Children staff and partners have screened over 90,000 children for malnutrition at a cost of $20 per child. If that's not 'value for money', I'm not sure what is.

In Nigeria last month, I met a woman called Rakiya whose husband had been killed and her village burned in the conflict there. In the face of violence and impending famine, Rakiya had fled to save her two young children. Before she could reach safety and medical help, she had lost one of them, a two-year-old, to measles. I sat with her as she clung to her painfully thin baby, Saliha, who is all she has left. But they now have a fighting chance to survive and rebuild their lives, thanks to emergency treatment from a centre funded by British aid.

The argument is made that while this emergency relief is justified, other aid should be cut. Yet it is the non-emergency aid that helps the world’s poorest countries to cope with disasters and stand on their own two feet.

In Britain, the taxman is not a popular figure. In Rwanda, he should be. There, British expertise and investment have been targeted at reforming the tax system. This may sound far away from emergency aid, but it has been just as significant a life-saver. The work has enabled Rwanda to collect three times as much in tax and spend five times as much on healthcare – doubling access to services which are tackling malnutrition and caring for new-born babies. British innovations like this must continue to be at the forefront of helping the world’s poorest.

Our generation has taken responsibility for driving huge, long-term improvements in the lives of the poorest. Six million fewer children will die needlessly this year than in 1990 because of increased vaccination and better healthcare. Over just the last five years, British aid has given 11 million children a chance in life by supporting them through school.

So don’t let anyone tell you that we can cut British aid without setting back this progress, without walking away from commitments, without cost to countless lives.

The UK must be ruthless in ensuring that every pound spent has maximum impact. But this means we need better aid, not less. In committing to spend 0.7 per cent of our national income on overseas aid, Britain has pledged to help people who have nothing. I am proud that we continue to deliver on that promise.

Kevin Watkins is chief executive of Save the Children UK. 

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

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