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5 January 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 2:59pm

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. 

By Kevin Watkins

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.  

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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.

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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.