A Defense of British Foreign Aid

In recent years, the attitude towards Britain’s vast foreign aid budget has been defined by growing derision and suspicion. In this article, Matthew Peacock looks at the arguments being put forward by those against the budget and whether their claims are factually viable. 

Britain’s commitment to foreign aid has been a pillar of governmental policies for decades. On leaving office in July 2016, the former Prime Minister David Cameron stated that his “proudest achievement” was the increase and distribution of foreign aid under his premiership.  In 2014, we were the first G7 nation to meet the UN target of contributing 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid, spending around £11.7bn in that year alone. However, this commitment has never been more under threat. With Cameron resigning from office and the rise of more right-wing leaning elements in the Conservative Party as well as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), xenophobia, protectionism and contempt towards foreign aid ideals is rife.

The predominate argument made by opponents of mass foreign aid, are that the sizeable majority of the British population do not want to see their taxes be spent on other countries. This was summed up by former UKIP MP, Mark Reckless in 2014, where he stated to fellow Members of Parliament that “members would do well to realise that the extent of the disconnect between what they want to do and what their constituents want is nowhere higher than in the area of overseas aid”. It’s an argument that certainly carries weight; it would be in contempt of democracy if MPs consistently ignored the views and wishes of their constituents. But is this opposition to foreign aid truly widespread? Whilst Reckless used a 2013 YouGov poll which found that 66% of respondents wanted to decrease the foreign aid budget to support his arguments, a 2015 Eurobarometer poll found that 67% of respondents supported the pledge to increase the foreign aid budget. Consequently, it is too simplistic to claim that the British population collectively want to diminish or undermine foreign aid. In fact, there are sections of the electorate that actively want it increased.

DFID/Creative Commons License

DFID/Creative Commons License

So why do those that oppose the foreign aid budget have an overwhelming sense of scepticism towards it? Well, it is largely drawn from the perceived notion that it is being mis-managed and instead of going to those who really need it, it is instead going to corrupt governments and greedy non-governmental organisations. This was supported by Jonathon Foreman, a senior research fellow at Civitas, in an interview with the BBC in 2013, in which he claimed that the response to dealing with humanitarian issues “should not just be a matter of boosting the overall aid budget or of handing more money to institutions that we know are likely to steal it, waste it or give it to the wrong people”. This claim is highly contestable, as well as generalising developing countries into corrupt and inefficient regimes. Whilst it is clear that some are, many are improving their infrastructure through economic development and foreign backing from countries such as the UK. It is a firm favourite, though, of Right-wing Establishment newspapers, such as the Daily Mail and the Murdoch titles, to find outrageous stories of foreign aid calamities which may have some ties to our aid budget and undermine the progress being made. Stories emerge of British taxpayers funding Morrocan water-parks and Ethopian “Spice Girls”, with the true story so twisted and muddled by the media that foreign aid appears trivial and abused. Naturally, these stories dominate the headlines.

DFID/Creative Commons License

DFID/Creative Commons License

But no economic system of distribution is perfect, without inefficiencies slipping through the net. The benefits that the billions of pounds of foreign aid bring about far outweigh the misspent money that represents a minute portion of the aid budget. Furthermore, there have been steps made to combat the money being sent out unnecessarily. Jonathan Tanner, a media and public affairs manager at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), stated in 2013 that there is now “an independent aid watchdog that produces regular reports on whether the effectiveness of aid spending puts pressure on decision makers to get things right.” It is an understandable frustration from skeptics of aid in a time of austerity to see taxpayer’s money being sent abroad. With increasing checks and scrutiny on where the money is actually going, hopefully one of the most significant qualms that many have with foreign aid can be diminished.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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