Britain spends nearly £12 billion a year on foreign aid. By international standards, we are almost grotesquely generous. We are the second largest aid donor in absolute terms (behind the USA), and the sixth largest in relative terms, at 0.56% of GDP. Sixth may sound unimpressive, but the top five are all small countries. We are by far the largest donor, in relative terms, amongst large nations – ahead of the USA (0.19%), and Germany (0.38%).
We in UKIP say that’s disproportionate, and that we should focus first on disasters closers to home, like the recent floods. And the public seem to agree with us. A Taxpayers’ Alliance poll found that 69% of the public would like to freeze foreign aid, which the government plans to increase. Well over 140,000 people signed the Daily Mail’s petition calling for foreign aid to be diverted to British flood victims.
But not everyone agrees. I’ve been called “wicked” on Twitter simply for stating UKIP’s position. And even Peter Oborne in the Telegraph (for whom I have great respect) makes a strong case against our position. He argues that while the floods have been dreadful for victims, the scale of the disaster in the UK is completely overshadowed by the much larger scale of floods and other disasters elsewhere in the world, and in poor countries, and therefore foreign aid must be maintained. He argues that it’s pretentious and disproportionate even to make the comparison between our (relatively) modest flood problems and overseas disaster relief. I think he’s wrong.
The first point to make is a simple one. It is the first duty of a British government to provide for the security and welfare and governance of the British people. It is not their first duty to seek to provide security for the rest of the world. It is arguable whether Britain has a moral duty to deal with all the world’s problems, and equally arguable whether, if so, the government is the best agent to do that work.
Which brings us to the second key point. The demand for aid, globally, is almost unlimited. While we debate whether to admit a few hundred Syrian refugees into the UK, there are millions more in desperate straits. We can’t help them all. There are volcanoes and tsunamis and earthquakes and floods all around the world, and even with our large aid budget, we can merely scratch the surface. So we are reduced to what a cynic may describe as gesture politics. Overcome by survivors’ guilt and post-colonial angst, we want to be seen to be doing something, anything, even though it has little effect.
The current UK flooding, on the other hand, is something we could do a huge amount to resolve, both in terms of immediate relief and of longer-term flood prevention. And we could do so for a fraction of the foreign aid budget. So in my view we should do it, and the government has an obligation to help these British people. It has no such obligation for the rest of the world, even though we should all, of course, like to do what we could.
That is why UKIP would support a more limited foreign aid budget, focused on direct disaster relief. Floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes. Tents, blankets, food, medicine. But we do not believe we should be going to countries like China and India which can afford nuclear weapons and space programmes, and helping to finance their social services. These growing economies can and should be looking after their own people, and we should be looking after ours.
We are all familiar with the old cliché about money given by poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries – but there is a lot of truth in it. And there is ample evidence that money sent with the best of intentions is poorly administered and goes astray. Lorries used until the diesel runs out, and then abandoned, or commandeered by the bad guys. There are even rumours that DFID is simply unable to spend the flood of money allocated to its budget.
But foreign aid, as a source of funding for developing countries, is completely over-shadowed in financial terms (though sadly not in media terms) by two other major income streams: trade, and overseas remittances from nationals working abroad. This has been pointed out by many commentators, including the erudite (if fogeyish) William Rees-Mogg. In fact we could probably do more for poor people in the Third World by scrapping the EU’s protectionist Common Agricultural Policy than by any amount of foreign aid.
There is one final point which will appeal to libertarians and may, I hope, appeal to Peter Oborne. Broadly speaking, governments should do things that the people individually cannot do for themselves. Things like armed forces and policing. But philanthropy and overseas disaster relief can indeed be done by the citizen, not the state, and in my view it should be done that way. If we had a more rational tax system in the UK, we might also start to see more of a culture of philanthropy, such as we see in the USA.
So I have a message for those internet trolls who fulminate against UKIP’s stand on foreign aid. Get out your cheque-book and send some money to www.dec.org.uk.