In defence of Aid

Posted on: 03 March 2011 by Alexander Hay

A little honesty about what aid really does is necessary

Foreign benefits in more ways than oneGreat was the uproar towards the government's safely ring-fenced annual aid budget of almost £8 billion. Recently announced cuts of £50 million a year and reduction of aid to certain countries have not diminished the criticism. The complaints remain mainly threefold.

Firstly, that the money was going to countries that were rich enough to have their own space programmes and even give aid to other countries themselves, that the budget was being overly privileged given the austere times we now live in, and the most inevitable being that 'charity begins at home', a sort of dog-whistle for people who don't like foreigners.

Each position is wrong, and in reverse order, let's start with the 'we deserve it more!' angle. From an ethical standpoint, complaining about aid going to poor countries doesn't make much sense when you consider that we are still a well-off, affluent nation.

Our life expectancies are going up, as is our standard of living, and if we can afford to waste vast sums of money on ephemera like computer gamesfootball matches and alcohol, chucking a few billion to people who have next to nothing seems perfectly fair.

Throwing money at our own problems hardly helps either – complicated post-industrial societies like ours need something more fundamental than largesse. We may as well spend the money on something useful instead.

The practicalities are compelling too. Keeping the third world from starving or falling apart too much means the world is a safer place and - pay attention - stops even more refugees coming to our shores.

If anything, aid will become ever more important as climate change means resources become ever scarcer and wars erupt over things like access to water.

Plus, keeping this sort of thing to a minimum means the long-term impact of changes on the UK will be minimalised.

People who realise they're not going to starve to death or die of thirst tend not to be as restive as those that are, and wars have a nasty habit of effecting the rest of the world directly or indirectly.

Complaints about the budget being protected are wrong headed too. The government is certainly short-sighted in cutting the budget of the BBC World Service, and indeed trying to limit access to our universities - and so our soft cultural power - to foreign students.

And so, pessimistic as it may sound, coughing up for the third world at least mitigates this stupidity, especially if people know the rich people who live on that cold, miserable group of islands in the North Sea care enough to share some of their wealth.

Kindness, albeit of the cynical kind, can be very persuasive, hence why China is hurling money at Africa, and wouldn't it be better for our interests (and those of the Africans themselves) if it was us providing the freebies?

But why give money to countries that are on the up as well as those on the skids? Put simply, it keeps us in their good books, which is always useful.

As India reaches for the stars, creates a large, ambitious middle class and starts making its own cultural and social impact on the world, it's always good to have influence, and a long-term relationship based on mutual benefit.

Which is to say, the money we spend on our aid budget now translates into closer, mutually beneficial relationships 30-40 years down the road.

Yet isn't this bribery? Well, of course it is. There's nothing wrong with bribery if it makes things better for all concerned, like funding schools for Pakistani children – a necessary counter to Islamist radicalisation.

It's only when badly planned, and badly run aid programmes start propping up corrupt or dictatorial regimes that the problems begin, and sadly this has happened all too often.

Meanwhile, a wealthy emergent superpower is always good to have as a friend, and our aid helps their societies go through the painful process of modernisation with less damage done to those who invariably get caught up in the changing times and economic circumstances of rising nations.

The real problem with aid is that we don't admit this, nor that it is in our best interests to stop wars and refugee crises or that our overfed, pampered wallets won't miss a bit of food and medical aid to people dying of malaria and malnutrition. But our government, ever evasive, refuses to admit what is, after all, a very sensible investment indeed.

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Alexander Hay

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