In recent years they have immunised 67.1m children against preventable disease, reached 64.5m people with at least one of water, sanitation or hygiene promotion and supported 11.3m children in primary and lower secondary education (DfID Dev Tracker). But should the British public be happy with, or even proud of the work of the Government’s Department for International Development (DfID)?
It was the Liberal Democrats who brought the bill for the UN’s target of 0.7% of GNI to be spent of foreign aid to the British Parliament, which has been met for the last 3 years (The Week, May 2016). This seemingly minute proportion of our country’s income is actually 5th in the world by percentage and 2nd to the US in value, so I would say that we are doing pretty well in the aid spending league tables. But considering that only 5 countries are meeting the UN target it starts to beg the question of why other countries, especially those who are highly developed, are not doing the same? Are there/should there be punishments for countries who don’t meet the target?
Aside from the UN target, there is a domestic debate around whether Britain should increase, reduce or continue current levels of foreign aid spending, which is organised through DfID as ODA (Official Development Assistance). To put foreign aid spending into context 8.8% of GDP in 2013 was spent on Healthcare (ONS) and 2.2% of GDP in 2014/15 was spent on Defence (gov.uk). Personally, I think it is important to get the balance right between helping those in our own country and abroad. Although we can say that British citizens are much wealthier on average than those in less developed countries, there are still plenty people in need on our doorsteps; Britain currently has 1.66m unemployed, whole families who rely on Food Banks, and is still recovering from the economic downturn of 2008 and the government austerity which followed. At the same time, I feel it is our duty to try to reduce global inequality – often referred to as the North-South Divide – to create a more equal post-colonial world.
It has been found that the majority of the British public would like the Government to spend more on foreign aid, and in fact are shocked at the small proportion of GNI spent on it, as shown in the video UK Aid: View from the streets (YouTube video) .
But if we agree on how much is spent, do we agree on how and where it is spent?
I was somewhat surprised to learn that Pakistan is the top receiver of DfID aid at £414.83m, while Syria id 5th, receiving £181.86m. I asked myself why I was so surprised; was it because I expected the UK to send the most aid to the countries I hear most about on the news? I then questioned whether there are problems in Pakistan that we should be more aware of, or if DfID have got their priorities wrong? We would hope not.
The biggest share by sector is spent on Disaster, followed by Health, then Education, but is DfID’s top achievements are Health and Education related what does Disaster spending achieve? Perhaps it is unfair to be so critical of disaster spending, as it will usually be unplanned emergency aid with the aim of keeping people alive and helping them rebuild their lives. It is also extremely difficult to gather data following a disaster, so it would be unrealistic to expect published statistics about numbers of people saved from the rubble after an earthquake, for example. Also, in the current situation of “climate change, urban migration, population growth and increased scarcity of natural resources”(DfID Defining Disaster Resilience) we can only expect disasters to be more frequent and more intense.
Returning to Pakistan for a moment,
“[t]he UK is already helping to build resilience to disasters. Following the catastrophic Pakistan floods of 2010, for example, we are helping communities and national authorities prepare for future events. This includes: developing safety plans in schools and communities; helping farmers to use crops that can cope with flooding; and providing communities with the skills and tools they need to maintain their food self-sufficiency.”(DfID Defining Disaster Resilience)
This begins to explain why British Taxpayers’ money is important to Pakistan, although we hear little about on the news. Therefore, it is important not to jump to conclusions about where our money is best spent based on media coverage, but instead to do some research and be more open-minded.
DfID do a lot of good work, it must be said, and I have struggled to find substantial faults with their work yet. When examining their accounts of August 2016 (DfID August 2016 accounts) I raised an eyebrow at the number of entries for travel expenses, assuming lots of money was being wasted here. But when compared to the total spending for August, travel makes up less than 1%.
Let me leave you with one final question: Should DfID be held to account on exactly where their 33.42% of “Unallocated” spending goes?