One of the most striking pre-Christmas narratives to which we have been treated in recent weeks has been the full-on assault by sections of the media on development aid and particularly the government’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of Britain’s national income on it.
As chief executive of Oxfam, an organisation that campaigned for and is a (relatively minor) recipient of UK aid, as well as being a regular challenger of policy and practice that we don’t agree with, it hurts to see examples of “waste” splashed across the media.
But while some of the attacks appear to be driven by particular outlets’ own agendas, those of us who champion aid must also recognise the media has a valuable role to play in holding us and the government to account and pushing us to up our game. The fact is that waste short changes not just the generosity of the UK citizen but the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world – those we exist to help.
This year I have seen the impact of British aid on people suffering from conflict or living in poverty in countries as different as Syria, Ethiopia, Iraq and Bangladesh. Many people I met had had their lives transformed or even saved by some combination of British government aid and charities backed by the British public.
Earlier this month, a disabled shopkeeper in a small town near Mosul described how Oxfam support to rebuild his shop, burnt down by IS, meant he could now feed his family. In Ethiopia, a woman introduced her children, now no longer working but at school because of the money earned from her being trained and supported to keep bees.
It is a mistake to allow the ideal to become the enemy of the good. The fact is that every major government spending programme faces challenges to ensure value for money, demonstrate lasting impact or achieve precisely the results that were envisaged.
We don’t respond to waste in the NHS by cutting health spending. Instead, we need an honest conversation about what is being done well and what is not, and to commit to do better and continuously improve.
We need to reaffirm that the primary purpose of aid is to tackle global poverty. Aid is about what Britain can do to provide health and education, jobs, shelter and security for people living in poverty, not what their countries can do for Britain. While the aims aren’t often mutually exclusive, losing that clarity will, I fear, lead to more examples of taxpayers’ money being poorly spent.
Most of the recent media coverage has challenged Dfid’s performance, and there is certainly room for improvement. But the risks of aid being badly managed are actually far greater in other departments such as FCO, BIS, the National Security Agency and others that have neither the design nor the expertise built over time to manage the growing billions of pounds with which they are now entrusted.
It is also right to recognise that the scale of the UK’s commitment to aid has proved a significant challenge for government. We should celebrate the generosity of the British people in committing to an aid budget of 0.7 per cent of GNI, while honestly acknowledging the strain this has imposed.
We can improve the way the aid budget is planned and spent by changing the rules to allow this commitment to be met over a five-year period, with money carried over from year to year. And let’s change the internal Treasury rules that require too much of it to be spent in the first nine months of every year. They are hindering, not helping, the drive for greater effectiveness.
Let’s also challenge the assumption that the private sector always knows and always does best. The public doesn’t want companies making profits out of poverty. Dfid needs to be staffed so that it can better manage activities itself.
It’s a false economy to under-invest in the skills and internal scrutiny needed to deliver aid well – especially when the knock-on effect is outsourcing to the private sector at scandalously inflated cost. It also needs stronger partnerships with local and international civil society organisations to reach the most excluded at reasonable cost.
We also need to acknowledge that, while aid is important in the fight against global poverty, it is far from the only part we can play. We should use the UK’s exit from the EU and the need to negotiate new relationships and treaties to make Britain a world leader in the way we use new trade and migration agreements to benefit the poorest countries.
I would like to see the government build on the Prime Minister’s commitment to tackle exclusion and inequality in the UK and make that a global priority.
Ensuring that the poorest share in growing prosperity is vital to ending extreme poverty. If large numbers of people feel excluded from prosperity, opportunity and society, everyone in that country is worse off and the world is less stable. This is as true in Kenya or Nigeria as it is in the UK. Tackling rising inequality is a global challenge on which the UK can lead.
Illicit financial flows, tax dodging, discrimination and oppressive labour conditions affect people everywhere and starve public services of resources in all corners of the world. The UK, home to one of the world’s largest financial centres and with a string of tax havens as overseas territories and crown dependencies, is uniquely placed to do something about that.
Finally, we all need to speak out more in celebration of the speed and impact of British humanitarian and development assistance. In countries like Syria, Yemen and South Sudan where war rages people have food, water and shelter, in some cases life, that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
In more stable developing countries like Tanzania and Ghana, literally millions of children are in school, have been vaccinated, parents have jobs, mothers can access family planning, all enjoy better government as a result of British aid.
When the public hears about our collective achievements – whether delivered by government or the many charities they choose to support, they are rightly proud of their contribution. From the Prime Minister down, we all share a duty to ensure that taxpayers hear – not just about what the government is doing to prevent waste – but about the countless lives saved and transformed by British aid.
Mark Goldring is chief executive of Oxfam GB.