Should Cameron use the foreign aid budget here at home?

David Cameron will fund the resettlement of refugees with a raid on the Dfid budget. He's well within the rules - but should he?

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The headline, first - David Cameron has committed to housing just 20,000 refugees - or 4,000 every year. And George Osborne knows how he'll pay for it - by raiding the Department for International Development (Dfid). 

First things first: the 4,000 is a embarrassingly small number - to put it into context, Germany (population of 80 million compared to the UK's 60 million) will admit 15,000 refugees this week. It is derisory with a capital D, E, R, I, S, O, R, and Y. But put that aside for a moment - what about how the government will pay for it: a raid on the foreign aid budget? 

As the Prime Minister is fond of saying, Britain is one of the few countries to meet its aid commitment - of 0.7 per cent of GDP - and, soon, it's commitment as a member of NATO to two per cent of GDP. The country is one of the biggest donors towards refugee camps in Syria and around its borders.  And there's nothing against the rules in using the Dfid budget in this way - as far as international aid is concerned, resettlement counts towards a country's 0.7 per cent, as do military operations if they involve, for example, disaster relief or food distribution.

There are, also, strong arguments for using foreign aid to fund some domestic expenditure. The BBC's World Service, a vital tool for communities across the developing world, is now solely funded out of the licence fee, has already suffered swingeing cuts and there may well be more to come. Meanwhile, Dfid funds local newspapers throughout Africa and Asia  - despite print journalism being in decline there as much as the developed world. It would be far better if some of the aid budget went to bolstering the BBC's international radio - a booming medium used by thousands . But while that might notionally be spending here at home, the benefits are felt abroad. Resettling refugees in the UK will not make conditions better in Syria or Libya - and will ultimately mean reductions in foreign aid, including in the countries that these refugees are fleeing from. It also risks eroding one of the big benefits of the 0.7 per cent target - giving aid organisations a reliable stream of income. The Prime Minister should think again. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.