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13 June 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:40am

Foreign aid isn’t an act of charity – it makes us safer, too

Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water – UK aid is changing lives and helping build a better, safer world for us all.

By Tom Dannatt

It’s almost exactly two years since Finda Nymah a grandmother from Kpondu village, became the first victim of Ebola in Sierra Leone. Her death, a tragedy in its own right, led to tragedy on a vast scale. 

The World Health Organisation estimates that her funeral alone led directly to 350 deaths from the virus.

Over the following two years, Ebola spread far beyond the small, remote village of Kpondu on the Guinea-Liberia-Sierra Leone border and claimed almost 4,000 lives in Sierra Leone, leaving 12,000 children orphaned. It marked the start of the deeper region-wide Ebola crisis.

The spread of the Ebola virus across West Africa between 2014-2015 caused a global health emergency.

The incredibly low levels of healthcare and education in the three worst hit countries were the key underlying factors behind the spread of Ebola, putting other countries at risk and requiring huge sums of international aid to be spent to control the virus.

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The story of Ebola, and especially that of Finda Nymah challenges the idea that overseas aid is an ‘optional moral extra’ for when we are feeling especially kind or flush.

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Finda Nymah and the many Finda-like tragedies that played out on grim scale over West Africa in late 2014 showed how the illiteracy of one person was not just their own personal problem or tragedy – it was something that could have dramatic consequences for all of us.

Illiterate people who engage in dangerous health practices do not just endanger themselves – but can put lives at risk on the other side of the planet.

Finda lived in a cluster of 12 villages where there has never been a school. It is easy not to get Ebola – don’t touch ill or recently deceased people. But if you don’t have the educational ability to receive, or scientific understanding to trust, this message you are at grave risk at a time when the virus is around. And as a result so to some extent are we all.

The immediate impact of this for the children of Kpondu was that almost every child has lost a parent or close relative to Ebola – preventing this in itself would have been a great act of ‘charity’. But as we know, Ebola went beyond Kpondu, across Sierra Leone and even further afield. Preventing that from happening is not charity, that is just smart. 

Today, MPs debate UK spending on foreign aid. They will evaluate whether the pledge, now enshrined in law, to ring fence the 0.7 per cent of GDP for the aid budget is right.

Aside from the moral arguments for helping the world’s poorest, which some find more compelling than others, what Ebola proved is that aid spent on effective programmes and education for the poorest is a smart investment. It makes the world, and the UK, a safer place.

As MPs debate, builders in Sierra Leone will be working on Kpondu’s first school, built by UK NGO Street Child with funds donated by the British public and Government. The school means that Finda’s twin toddler granddaughters will have access to the education that could have saved their village, and Sierra Leone, from Ebola. This is not just good for these girls – it is good for everyone, wherever they are.

DFID is currently match funding all donations to Street Child’s Girls Speak Out appeal which aims to help 20,000 poor and Ebola-hit children to access school this year. It is investing in stopping these children from becoming a lost generation. UK aid will help stop some of the world’s poorest girls from having to engage in commercial sex to fund their education. It will help re-unite Ebola orphans with caregivers so that these children can go back to school and have some hope for life.

There is no question that without the intervention of the international community during Ebola, the epidemic would have taken far longer to quell and far more lives would have been lost. The continued support of the international community has also been fundamental to helping Sierra Leone’s children to recover.

What is also important to recognise is the effectiveness of intervention ahead of crisis.

It was the pre-existing medical programmes such as the Kings Sierra Leone Partnership that gave the international community a foothold at the outset of the crisis.

DFID’s investment in Street Child in 2013 meant that established support facilities for vulnerable children were already in place in 32 locations right across Sierra Leone before Ebola hit. This was vital in enabling the charity to provide swift and effective support to 12,000 Ebola orphans – as well as the platform for an ‘Ebola education’ operation which reached over 250,000 people one-to-one.

Where effective support and education was already established, the likelihood of people contracting Ebola decreased.

Investment in development, especially healthcare systems and education, is vital in the prevention of crisis. Better systems in Sierra Leone could have prevented such a widespread Ebola outbreak in the first place.

The UK is leading by example in giving 0.7 percent of GDP to foreign aid spending. I believe it is a moral stance we should be proud of – but that is a personal view. What is much harder for anyone to deny is that it is a smart spend that makes lives better not just for some of the poorest people in the world – but life safer for us all.

‘Aid money’ does not have magic powers. It is often well spent but can still be, and is too often, not spent as efficiently or effectively as possible. But that comment applies to every government department and every system the world over. We don’t argue that we should slash health spending every time there is a bad IT system installed – no, we justly criticise that waste of money and campaign for better.

Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water – UK aid is changing lives and helping build a better, safer world for us all.  We should celebrate that, whilst not being afraid to call it out when we see things that could be done better.

Tom Dannatt is CEO of StreetChild.