As a Tory, it is easy to see the attraction of cutting the foreign aid budget – as Kwasi Kwarteng reportedly aims to do by removing £5bn from the international development budget. From our point of view, the money we send overseas is often used wastefully, or acts to subsidise other nation’s follies. Equally, it is a politically expedient budget line to cut, being among the least popular areas of expenditure, and with little impact on day-to-day life in the UK. As the cost-of-living crisis tightens, there is an obvious and easy case for prioritising the poor in Britain ahead of the poor overseas. Yet this would be a strategic and moral mistake.
For all its challenges, the UK remains one of the world’s richest countries. The 0.7 per cent of spending once marked for international aid was a pretty incidental amount that could do a huge amount of good around the world. When directed well, foreign aid can bypass local corruption and deliver life-saving relief in some of the most troubled parts of the world. Cuts have consequences and make life worse for people far less fortunate than even Britain’s poorest citizens.
Yet spending on foreign aid isn’t simply altruistic – it is aligned with our long-term interests. We no longer have enough Royal Navy destroyers to impress the world into aiding our interests. Instead, we can court other countries by impressive, effective projects backed by British money and adorned with UK flags. Providing our aid and our expertise is one way of building alliances in the developing world.
If we withdraw, we open the door to our strategic rivals. In recent years China has invested in Africa and the Caribbean to increase its global influence. So too have the Russians, with their expenditure in Africa winning them some diplomatic support during the war in Ukraine. Aid can be an effective part of building stable, democratic allies that will be vital in future crises.
Beyond this, most of the issues we spend our aid money addressing deliver long-term benefits to Britain. Our economic growth will only be aided by the rest of the world becoming more prosperous, offering up future opportunities for trade and investment. British business will benefit from new markets with more stability, enough roads to deliver produce and courts that run on the rule of law, rather than bribery.
It also helps with our trickiest problems at home. Global instability and poverty leads to migration, especially asylum seekers. The migrants who seek to cross the English Channel are driven, usually, either by violence, poverty, or both. Proper investment in overseas aid allows us to reduce the risks of these and to deal with the root of the problem by supporting migrants to stay closer to where they are displaced. This reduces the burden on the British state and paves the way for migrants to return to and restore their country of origin. Peace and prosperity overseas will stop more migrant boats than deportations and wave machines ever will.
No Tory wants to see frivolous or wasted government spending, and some aspects of our aid budget have been foolhardy. The answer to that though is better spending, not less. Hitting the 0.7 per cent level was one of the best achievements of successive Tory governments, and was in the interests of both us and the world’s poorest people.
We’ve already fallen back from that, since Rishi Sunak cut the overseas budget by a third in November 2020. It would be morally and strategically dubious to impose further cuts to our overseas spending now. Stockbroker’s tax cuts should not come at the expense of the safety of Syrian school girls. And we should not betray our humanity or our interests for the nasty nativism that sees only the cost in foreign aid, but not its value.