Much as those of us working in the aid sector hate to admit it, sometimes criticism is good for us. Many of the big improvements in aid over the past few decades have been spurred by those willing to ask the tough questions about whether our practice lives up to our sometimes lofty ideals.
One of the big shifts of the past few decades has been the move away from short-term, top-down, “quick fix” aid towards longer-term programmes that achieve lasting results for the people we exist to help. The public may infrequently penetrate the jargon of “sustainability”, “building local capacity” and “predictable funding streams”, and the too-frequent failure of aid professionals to speak in a language others can understand, should not be allowed to obscure the real benefits this change has brought.
Likewise, the tendency of aid agencies to oversimplify the complex process of development to raise funds in a competitive market should not obscure the reality that the generosity of people in the UK has helped save and transform lives across the world.
Today, MPs have the opportunity to enable greater predictability in the UK’s aid programme by passing an historic piece of legislation which will commit 0.7 per cent of the UK’s national income to helping the world’s poorest people for the long term.
Progress tackling poverty takes time and effort. Twenty years ago, I was Oxfam’s country director in Bangladesh, a densely populated nation that suffers from frequent flooding and widespread poverty. We began a programme to reduce the impact of the all too regular floods on the most vulnerable people living on islands in the river and to offer their children the basic right to go to primary school.
This September, I was fortunate enough to return and see for myself the powerful impact that assistance has had on these communities. I met a group of women living on land which has been raised above flood water level as part of a flood preparedness programme and who were being helped to grow and sell the crops that would earn them a living.
The original Oxfam programme has been picked up by the British aid programme and replicated in a way that has benefitted hundreds of thousands of Bangladesh’s poorest people. Living with floods is part of their daily lives, but the community’s vulnerability has been dramatically reduced by improving their level of preparedness.
Before we left, I asked what the community would most like to see from aid organisations. Their answer was a secondary school – because every child of primary age is now enrolled in education. Girls as well as boys are attending school. Education is helping rural communities, particularly girls, to take charge and make their own decisions – and this is not something that can happen overnight.
The government, and indeed the British people, have already been very generous in their commitment to the world’s poorest people. In 2013, the UK became the first G8 country to achieve the 40-year-old, 0.7 per cent aid target and joined the rather small group of nations to do the same: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates.
This generosity has generated a backlash: why, we are often asked, should we send money overseas when there is much to be done on our doorstep? It is a fair question but one that misses the point. We live in one of the richest countries in the world; we have enough resources to tackle poverty both at home and abroad if we have the political will to do it. When my own house flooded early in 2014, I certainly did not want flood protection at the expense of those much more vulnerable in Bangladesh.
Looking back on 2014, you could not fail to be moved by the roll call of humanitarian disasters that have devastated the lives of those affected – the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, conflict in South Sudan and Gaza, ongoing tragedy in Syria, Ebola’s deadly spread across West Africa. We have had our work cut out before you even consider long-term intractable crises such as that in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Yet this could also be the year that sees the UK build on its existing leadership and make an ongoing commitment to helping millions survive conflict and natural disasters, as well as improve education, healthcare, and water and sanitation for the world’s poorest people.
Today’s parliamentary vote on Michael Moore’s Private Members’ Bill is a chance for MPs to reconfirm the UK’s status as a global leader in the fight against poverty. With only six months left of the five-year coalition parliament, it is also the last chance for MPs to fulfil a promise that was in the manifestos of the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour as well as in the coalition agreement. I urge them to grasp it.
It is surely not too much to ask the UK to continue to give 7p in every £10 of national income to help the world’s poorest people – like the women I met in Bangladesh – to keep their head above water?
Mark Goldring is Oxfam GB’s Chief Executive