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​After the deluge – can we have a serious debate on aid?

Written by Kevin Watkins


With families across Britain struggling to cope with the floods, Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), has delivered a big idea. Speaking from the flooded village of Burrowbridge on the Somerset Levels a couple of days ago, Mr Farage commented: ‘It would take a tiddly per cent of the overseas aid budget to say to people, however horrible this is, you won’t suffer financially.’

Never backward in coming forward to support appeals to patriotic populism, the Daily Mail has now entered the fray. It has turned the UKIP leader’s comment into a plan of action. Yesterday, the Mail launched a petition calling on ministers to ‘divert some of the UK’s … foreign aid budget to the floods crisis’.

I’m sorry, but can we press the pause button, take a deep breath, and ask if this is really grown up politics?

Nigel Farage is inviting us to join him in a Little Englander fantasy world. This is a world of simple choices. Either you help people on the Somerset Levels, or you fight poverty overseas – but you can’t do both. The Daily Mail clearly buys the story. Here are three reasons you shouldn’t.

Reason 1: Money is not the problem – and raiding aid is not the answer

People affected by the floods are facing real hardship. They have a right to expect support. But Mr Farage and the Daily Mail are playing politics with the lives of flood victims – and with the lives of desperately poor people in developing countries.

Severe as the hardship is, finance is the not the constraint on effective action. As the Prime Minister put it yesterday ‘money is no object’.

This is partly because all governments make provision for emergencies. The Treasury has a contingency fund equivalent to around 2% of public spending. For purposes of comparison, the £11 billion aid budget takes 1.6% of spending.

I’m not sure who writes Mr Farage’s scripts on financial matters, but they might want to take a look at the arithmetic. To put it in technical terms, however tiddly the part of the aid budget needed to deliver a fixed amount of compensation, it would take an even tiddlier part of the contingency budget.

There’s a more serious point in this. If Mr Farage and the Daily Mail are interested in helping to support people facing hardship, they should put their real money estimates on the table. Flood victims need money and support, not sound bites and populist gestures.

Potential UKIP voters might also want to reflect on whether or not the party’s leader grasps some of the fundamentals of public finance. Moving money across government takes time and planning. You can’t run long-term programmes on the basis of short-term whims and impromptu responses to circumstances.

The proper place for changing spending priorities is the public spending round. We should openly debate the case for aid (declaration of interest: that’s part of our day job here at ODI). At a time of acute fiscal strain and pressure on public budgets, there has to be an open discussion on spending priorities and revenue measures. Chronic short-termism is not a good starting point.

Reason 2: Aid saves lives and expands opportunities

The benefits of aid are often exaggerated – sometimes wildly so. There’s a lot that could be done to strengthen the effectiveness of development assistance. And there are tough decisions to be made over how much to give to which country, under what conditions. None of this amounts to a case for aid cuts.

Last year, I visited schools in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley delivering education to Syrian refugee children. Most of them had lost two years of schooling. Many of them had been traumatised. Is this what UKIP wants to cut? Or maybe they have in mind the aid that has been directed to cutting child deaths, improving maternal mortality, and combating malnutrition.

Perhaps Mr Farage and the Daily Mail are thinking more along the lines of a like-for-like exchange. Why not cut support for climate disaster victims in poor countries to pay for flood victims in the UK?

There’s a nice symmetry to the argument. But you might want to stop and reflect on proportionality. The floods are a tragedy for many people here in the UK. Over 5,000 homes have been badly damaged. Hundreds of people have been displaced. By way of comparison, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines killed over 6,000 people, damaged or destroyed 5 million homes, and affected 15 million people. Bluntly stated, we are not in the same ball-park.

At its best aid saves lives, expands opportunity for health and education, and supports the economic growth that countries need to become more self-reliant. Delivering aid to countries affected by conflict, corruption and weak governance is a challenge – it’s not a reason for turning our back on people who need our solidarity.

And it’s not a reason to distort reality. The Daily Mailhas invested heavily in making the case for the UK to get out of aid. For the Mail, the floods are just another opportunity to promote an inward-looking political culture.

Reason 3: This is a debate about values, not budgets

Ultimately, this isn’t really a debate about West-Country floods. It’s not even a debate about aid. This is a debate about our values, our capacity for compassion and empathy, and about Britain’s place in a globalised world. This is a world of interconnected countries facing shared problems – like climate change, armed conflict and extreme inequality – that demand multilateral solutions.

The fact is, the vast majority of people in the UK have the moral capacity to care about suffering at home and abroad – and to demand action on both fronts. That’s why so many people support the UK’s extraordinary non-government organisations like Oxfam and Save the Children (another declaration of interest: I used to work for the former and am on the Board of the later). It’s why, in the midst of acute fiscal pressures, public support for aid remains high. And it’s why, in the month after Typhoon Haiyan, the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal had received over £70 million.

Public attitudes are reflected in political parties. Thankfully, aid is no longer party political dogfight territory. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown took the UK from the lower divisions to the premier league of leadership on international cooperation, setting an agenda on aid and debt relief. To their credit, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have honoured Britain’s aid commitments. David Cameron has put tax justice for poor countries on the G8 agenda. William Hague has emerged as a global champion for international action to curtail violence against women in conflict zones.

What the leaders of all three parties understand is that in an interconnected world combating poverty and extreme inequality is not just a moral imperative, but also an investment in shared prosperity, peace and stability.

Does that mean we should support aid on a no-strings-attached basis? Of course not. British taxpayers have a right to demand value for money – and poor people in developing countries have a right to expect results.

We need to debate how best to secure the value and deliver the results. But we can do without the Little Englander comfort blanket.