Today, Boris Johnson and Priti Patel will address Conservative party conference, setting out the government’s vision for “global Britain”. The list of issues they could address seems almost endless; war in Yemen and Syria, horrors in Myanmar, food insecurity across East Africa, the threat of a nuclear war, Brexit, hurricanes and climate change.
But the fact is, if we look beyond this daunting list, the world we live in has never been better. Now, you’d be forgiven for stifling a laugh if you’re reading this as you switch on your TV or open your Twitter feed, but it’s true. We are healthier, wealthier, better educated, more tolerant and less violent than at any other time in history and we should all be proud that the United Kingdom has been central to this improvement in people’s lives.
In the past five years alone, UK aid has protected 67.1 million children against a range of preventable diseases, and 45 million children will be immunised against polio every year until 2020, meaning an end to the disease is now well within our reach. Since 1990, we have helped halve the number of child deaths globally.
This change hasn’t come about through wishful thinking alone, it is the result of decades of hard work, campaigning and global co-operation. Without UK aid, change on this scale would simply not have happened. It is global Britain at our very best. And it’s also taken more than a little optimism to achieve.
But this progress is at risk unless we’re vigilant about how UK aid is spent, because the way the British Government spends it is changing.
An increasing amount of UK Overseas Development Assistance is being directed away from the Department for International Development to be spent by other government departments. We believe this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it allows us to draw on a wealth of skills and talent from across Whitehall, but we must ensure UK aid continues to truly benefit those most in need. To be sure, we need to tighten our rules on how it’s spent, and what it’s spent on.
First, the government must refocus its efforts to accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The global goals provide a strategic framework to improve lives, reduce extreme poverty and prevent the conflict and corruption that stand in the way of sustainable development.
Contributing to the growing debate around UK aid, and Britain’s role in the world, Save the Children has today launched a new report: “Next Generation Aid; Making UK Aid Deliver for Children”. This sets out a range of measures that could help ensure UK aid, in every department where it is spent, is accountable to the world’s poor and the British public, ultimately helping to achieve the SDGs.
We welcome the suggestion that UK aid should be better co-ordinated through the agreement of a single cross-government plan for each country in which it is spent, contributing consistently to the goals.
The report proposes that all UK aid should come under the remit of the International Development Act (2002) to ensure it is spent on poverty reduction. Additionally, it says it should be subject to an annual, independent transparency assessment, ensuring quality is not compromised as the remit widens.
Finally, the report calls for UK aid spending to be overseen by a new cabinet sub-committee, chaired by the Secretary of State for International Development. These ideas deserve attention.
As co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group for the Sustainable Development Goals, we see the way the UK spends aid as hugely important. The SDGs are called the global goals for a reason. They give us something to work towards, a deadline to change the world by 2030.
The UK’s role in creating this change is pivotal. But, as we see whenever we turn on the TV or look at our phone, so much of our progress is at risk. Now, more than ever, we need to be vigilant about how UK aid is spent.
So, when we see global Britain outlined by Priti Patel and Boris Johnson this afternoon, let’s hope we see a bold vision, and an optimistic one. We have many challenges ahead of us, but the best is yet to come. If we harness our spending power well, by 2030 we can deliver a world that is safer, fairer and more prosperous for all.
Jack McConnell was First Minister of Scotland from 2001 to 2007, and is a Labour peer. Gillian Keegan is Conservative MP for Chichester