The UK is set to join a select group of countries this year by becoming the first member of the G8 group of rich nations to meet the 0.7% GDP aid goal set by the UN in the 1970s. George Osborne says “we should all take pride in this historic moment for the country”. Many Conservative MPs and constituency activists disagree. UKIP have successfully used the aid issue as illustrative of a wider critique of a disconnected political class foisting its metropolitan predilections on an electorate which needs a government that puts it first. ‘Charity starts at home’ is the cry. ‘Why are we giving money to overseas countries when we’re cutting here at home?’ So is there a Conservative case for international aid at a time of austerity? I believe so. We should make it.
As with so much of the Cameron modernisation project, the language and political framing of our aid commitment needed to be reframed when the financial crisis hit. It changed everything. I believe the scale and urgency of our economic challenge, and the need for us to forge a more sustainable model of growth based on trade, rather than booms in the City, housing and public sector, makes the aid budget more, not less, important. But the political case for it has subtly changed. Rather than being a good thing simply because it demonstrates modern Conservatives are progressive, compassionate and internationalist, the best justification for a British electorate worried about their, and the country’s, economic future, is that our aid commitment, properly targeted, is first and foremost about our own security and economic interests.
The scale of the crisis we face means we have to regear our economy around the fastest emerging economies in the world. Our aid budget is key to our trade and our national security. Rather than sell the aid commitment as a demonstration of the moral compassion of modern conservatism, we should tell a harder truth. It’s vital for our future security – political and economic.
In the new world (dis)order, it is widely accepted that the biggest security threat we face is now from global terrorist movements, rogue states and the regional conflicts they feed on. At the root of so many of these threats is a toxic mix of extreme economic poverty and corruption. The best long term security policy is that which tackles the root causes of instability – so that the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, Pakistan, the western Sahara and the other parts of the world which feed jihadist and other radicalised anti-western movements are starved of the oxygen of resentment.
Economically, we are in a global race. We can no longer merely rely on the sclerotic eurozone, laden with debt, structurally uncompetitive, and politically gridlocked, to drive our economy. Growth prospects in the Eurozone look fragile at best. As a trading nation we need to be regearing our trade around the fastest growing emerging markets around the world- the ‘BRIC11+’ nations identified by Jim O’Neill at Goldman Sachs as the markets whose growth is shaping the new world economy, and political order. These economies are growing at around 8% per annum. That’s doubling every ten years. If we want to grow our way out of debt and QE dependency we need to unlock this huge trade opportunity. But we are competing with every other mature nation who are doing the same. We should think of our aid budget as an investment in the security, democracy and economic development on which we will depend in the years ahead.
Take the emerging African nations in sub-Saharan Africa, many of them Commonwealth nations with whom we have strong links, experiencing extraordinarily rapid development. Many of these countries will go through agricultural and industrial revolutions in the next 30 years that we went through in 300. Helping these countries to establish appropriate systems of governance based on free trade and the rule of law, and to embrace the new technologies in areas such as food, medicine and energy in which we lead and they need, we can help seed, feed and fuel the markets of tomorrow. And we can help create huge export markets for our scientists, lawyers, accountants, engineers, biomedical, cleantech and food and farming businesses.
This is not just aid. This is “aid and trade”. By better integrating our aid and trade missions, as the US did with the Marshall Plan, we can create new markets for our goods and services while helping these emerging nations adapt to the global market place. The Marshall Plan was once described as the most “altruistic plan in history”. In fact, it was hugely favourable to the US economy. Nowhere is our opportunity clearer than in the field of life sciences: the appliance of science to tackle the biggest challenges faced by mankind in the three big markets of food, medicine and energy. By 2050 the world’s population is set to double, and we need to double world food production using half as much land, water and energy. Britain is home to a disproportionate number of the world’s leading research centres in biomedicine, nutrition and cleantech. The global development challenge is our market opportunity.
Take Kenya, which I visited recently for the funeral of a young British conservationist in the frontline of the battle against poaching, pioneering new models of community conservation based on the mutual interest of local tribes, intensive farms and safari tourist lodges in the conservation of the landscape in N Kenya. Kenya is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Twenty years ago I hitchhiked from N Kenya to Cape Town and, of all the countries I visited, it had the worst prospects. A perfect storm of tribalism, corruption, Aids, poaching and out of control population growth threatened to make it a failed state. Today it is a rapidly emerging powerhouse in Sub Saharan Africa, and rapidly developing a free market economy and liberal democracy, as well as a middle class who have seen the future and do not want to go back. The UK is the single biggest trading partner with Kenya. But the Chinese are moving in, offering aid and lucrative trade deals (and, by the way, a blind eye to the ivory trade and the Somali bandits who protect it.) The UK’s presence in Kenya, through well co-ordinated DfiD and FCO programmes, with a small military outpost, is an important part of why we remain a key player in the country and the region.
I do believe there is a strong moral obligation behind our commitment to our foreign aid budget. I agree with the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, who said that the UK has a moral obligation to help “eradicate the unnecessary suffering of others.” This is particularly true of Africa, where we have a historic obligation to do all we can to alleviate suffering and provide the opportunities for development. But we should not be ashamed of linking our moral case for aid with the potential benefits to UK PLC, and it does not diminish our commitment if aid is provided in mutual self-interest.
David Cameron, Andrew Mitchell and Justine Greening are right. As was Lynda Chalker in the 80s who led the way in making the Conservative case for well targeted ‘progressive aid’. Let’s focus our aid budget on the countries where we see we can have most positive impact for us both. Let’s link our aid to good government, anti-corruption, human rights and the best protector of our liberty and prosperity: trade.
George Freeman is the MP for Mid-Norfolk, Government Adviser on Life Sciences, and Chair of the All Party Group on Agricultural Science and Technology.