Aid must be spent on world's poorest not on UK's 'commercial benefit'.
Critiques of UK aid have come thick and fast in recent years, often highlighting projects which don’t have a clear link to ending poverty or promoting Britain’s national interests.
It is a valid concern – Oxfam is as keen as anyone to ensure aid is not wasted.
With the unofficial Conservative leadership race kicking off, discussions about the future of the aid budget are once again on the table.
What we need is a sensible conversation about how to spend aid both in the interests of British taxpayers and, most importantly, the poorest people in the world.
Since 2004, when Tony Blair’s government committed to reach 0.7% by 2013, successive UK governments have done Britain proud by working to deliver and then sticking to this promise.
Encouragingly, new International Development Secretary Rory Stewart has reiterated his support for the 0.7% aid target from the get-go.
As the department with the best checks and balances to make sure aid is spent properly, it was encouraging to see the Department for International Development (DFID) given a greater proportion of the aid budget last year.
Yet that still left a quarter of the aid budget managed by departments other than DFID. It is often hard to know what these departments spend aid money on.
One of the common solutions posed by critics is that the UK should push for international aid rules to be rewritten, to get more ‘bang for our buck’ and shift aid’s focus to potential security and commercial benefits for the UK. That’s when alarms bells should start ringing.
The reality is that when we divert our focus to the UK’s own benefit, aid moves away from its core purpose of ending poverty.
It is no wonder, for example, that pots such as the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) and the Prosperity Fund fuel aid scepticism when, for example, the money goes on projects like museums in China, or offshore trading of the Indian Rupee.
With cyclones ravaging India and Africa on an unprecedented scale, and conflicts raging in Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo and beyond, now is not the time to de-prioritise the world’s most vulnerable people.
The greatest benefit we can deliver for the UK’s interests is a safer, stronger and more equal world.
As Rory Stewart said recently: “When Africa prospers, the world prospers, and when the world prospers, Britain prospers.”
We need to remember that polls consistently show that British people support UK aid because they want to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people.
That means that every penny of aid, whether its spent through DFID or not, needs to focus on ending poverty.
There is growing consensus that the government should take close look at aid spending outside of DFID to make sure it meets the highest possible standards.
This consensus is coming not just from within the development sector, the Labour party, the other main political parties and Parliament’s International Development Select Committee.
The consensus also comes from aid’s usual critics at the Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA) and Henry Jackson Society.
The government already has the mechanisms in place to make sure aid is spent properly.
Independent reviews, such as those by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) and the International Development Committee, have raised concerns time and again.
The problem is that those departments are just not listening. The Foreign Office, for example, has come under fire for poor transparency and putting poverty low on their agenda, yet its aid spending is increasing rapidly, to over £1 billion in 2018.
By not tackling the problems which divert money from the poorest and put the public off aid, the government risks undermining faith in overseas aid altogether.
With Rory Stewart in place as new Secretary of State, and a new spending review about to kick off, we need to see a collective effort from across the political spectrum to ensure that the Government raises the bar for spending across all departments.
The world’s poorest should always remain front and centre.
Toni Pearce is the head of advocacy at Oxfam GB.
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