When was the last time you felt proud to be British? So proud that you felt your chest swell and you wanted to find someone to say: “Look at what we can do!” I’ll take a guess that it was not that recently, or if it was, it was the Olympics, or maybe Wimbledon.
For me it was a couple of weeks ago. I was in a remote part of Uganda with two other members of Parliament, Nigel Evans and Matthew Offord. We had gone with the charity RESULTS UK to research child immunisation and see just what UK taxes are being spent on. After travelling for hours we turned off the red dirt track, lurched over potholes so big you could lose a village in them and parked next to a single storey building. As we walked round the side of the building, there it was – a gazebo emblazoned with the Union flag and the words: UK Aid. I felt so proud of my country I wanted to cry!
I know this is a strong reaction to a gazebo with a logo on it, but this gazebo was where mothers from the surrounding villages waited for their children to be immunised. The mothers we talked to had walked up to 15 kilometres to be there – and they will make this trek three times before their child is nine months old to ensure their little ones don’t die from preventable illnesses like measles and polio. Before the immunisation programme started, 30 per cent of Ugandans were dying before they reached adulthood but now, 80 per cent of children receive the vaccines and the death rate has plummeted. We made that happen!
The UK is one of the principal donors to Gavi, the public-private partnership that has enabled this miraculous turnaround. Created in 2000, Gavi strives to improve access to new and underused vaccines for children living in the world’s poorest countries. Gavi brings together the UN, Governments, the vaccine industry, private sector and civil society to improve immunisation coverage and accelerate access to new vaccines while making them more affordable. Every country benefiting has to make a contribution to the vaccine cost, with the intention that they will eventually pay in full once the economy of that country is strong enough. Gavi aims to reach over half-a-billion children this year, preventing seven million unnecessary deaths. Our commitment to this programme means that the UK is saving a life every two minutes.
I know some people get very aggrieved that the UK donates 0.7 per cent of our country’s income to foreign aid. Personally, when 99.3 per cent of our income is going to support the development of our own country, this tiny percentage invested in others feels like the right thing to do. It is right for many reasons: British people are charitable and don’t want to see others, especially children, suffering; illness travels so wiping it out at source makes sense for the health of all of us; our international humanitarian work is an excellent form of soft diplomacy enabling us to build strong partnerships and influence decision makers and finally, healthy children go to school and become healthy adults who make an economic contribution to their country, pulling them out of poverty and benefiting the world at large.
I have seen where our foreign aid goes. I have met the mothers who were so grateful that their babies will survive and have a bright future. I have spoken to the health workers who remember the death and suffering before the UK supported the immunisation programme. I didn’t see corruption, exploitation and greed. I saw gratitude, progress and optimism.
Our 0.7 per cent is doing a good job. We have every right to be proud!