Julian Jessop, an independent economist and fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs, argues YES
Almost everyone agrees that foreign aid needs fundamental reform. Some of the spending is wasteful and some may actually do more harm than good. The evidence also suggests that foreign aid is neither necessary nor sufficient for economic development.
Nonetheless, arbitrarily swinging an axe at the aid budget is not the right way to go about this, especially in the midst of a global pandemic.
For a start, cutting aid from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of GDP would only save about £4 billion a year. That’s peanuts these days. It’s ridiculous to argue that this is money that we can no longer afford, or that we need to divert money from the aid budget to spend on domestic priorities. Indeed, government borrowing in April alone undershot the official forecast by about £7 billion.
The politics feel wrong as well. It’s not a good look for one of the world’s richest countries to be cutting aid to some of the poorest under cover of a worldwide pandemic, let alone at the same time as trying to launch ‘Global Britain’.
Cutting aid might appear to be popular with the British public. But the examples of dubious projects trumpeted by some newspapers represent only a tiny proportion of total spending (certainly far less than the £4 billion at risk). People might think differently if they were more aware of the importance of UK aid in helping child victims of the conflict in Yemen.
Of course, people can also donate to charities directly. However, this may be one of the few areas where the government can add value, by identifying priorities and coordinating programmes. This support should be tied more closely to free market solutions – based on economic rights and trade liberalisation – but foreign aid still has a positive role to play.
Danielle Boxall, Media Campaign Manager at the Taxpayers’ Alliance, argues NO
From the vaccine to the furlough scheme, the full weight of the state has been thrown behind Britain’s recovery from this crisis. Spending has understandably ratcheted up to deal with these unprecedented times – borrowing has increased by over £300 billion since April last year. So the government’s overseas aid reduction came as welcome relief to taxpayers who will undoubtedly shoulder the burden of the pandemic.
For every example of aid well spent, there are multiple other projects the British people would (quite rightly) laugh at. Recent examples include a quarter of a million on dance lessons in Africa, almost three-quarters of a million pounds on ‘friendship benches’ in Zimbabwe, over £400,000 on arts projects for 90 Columbian teenagers, and half a million on adapting Shaun the Sheep for China.
With millions of pounds spent on unnecessary pet projects like these, it’s no wonder the public overwhelmingly backs a reduction to the aid budget. In 2019, only 15 per cent of international aid spending went on humanitarian causes. The government should easily cut out these wasteful programmes without touching the sides of genuinely good causes.
Despite the reduction to 0.5 per cent, the UK is still one of the most charitable countries in the world, giving more in aid than famously ‘liberal’ countries like New Zealand and Canada as a proportion of income (as our economy is larger, we also spend more outright). Even with a cut, we’re still leaps and bounds ahead of our friends and neighbours.
The first glimmers of the ‘old normal’ may be on the horizon, but we aren’t out of the woods just yet. In a national emergency like this, it’s only right that the foreign aid budget is reduced, and responsibly relocated to tackle the challenges we face at home.