Foreign aid is the most literal example of ‘virtue-signalling’ on the statute books

Andy Mayer

June 9, 2021

Just over 50 years ago the United Nations committed members to target 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income to development aid in order to provide consistent funding for official development assistance (ODA), or to promote economic development and welfare in developing countries. It does not include disaster relief and what can be included is defined by the OECD.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government of 2010-2015 as one of their last acts committed the target to law. The now wholly Conservative UK Government is required to either meet the target or report on why they haven’t, this year citing the pandemic as a reasonable excuse for aiming for 0.5 per cent. They have for their troubles incited a small rebellion in the Conservative backbenches, principally among those involved in Government in 2015.

To be clear, the target has nothing to do with the provision of good quality aid to the world’s poorest and those most in need. Or debates between economists about whether aid actually works. It is a matter of political theatre, and possibly the most literal example of ‘virtue-signalling’ on the statute books. It exists to demonstrate to the world what fundamentally decent folk the British can be, through the medium of international welfare.  A key point made by the rebels, then, is that the Government would be mad to abandon this stance at a time they are seeking global legitimacy outside the EU.

There is something to this in theory, but it is hard to discern from the rebels all those times when aid was crucial to advancing British interests in the world in practice. Or that there would be suffering without it. Let alone why it requires the nationalisation of Bob Geldof to achieve this end. Or why so few countries find this target similarly useful. Whatever the British Government does, the British people are generous givers. British-led charities are some of the world’s finest, and British ideas of free trade far more crucial to delivering development than any government programme.

Belief in the target is not then the same thing as wanting the world to develop faster. It is a belief that the best way to do this is through state action, that a particular level of finance matters more than any evidence of impact, and that to think otherwise is a sign of wickedness.

This is a classic example of elite groupthink, divorced from an understanding of the decency and common sense of the electorate, which cost the Coalition grandees their positions of leadership. The Government should certainly debate these matters, but from the perspective of what drives human progress, not targets for teeshirts, and championing the dogmatic socialism of NGO campaigns.


  • Andy Mayer

    Andy Mayer is Chief Operating Officer and environment, energy and infrastructure analyst at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Written by Andy Mayer

Andy Mayer is Chief Operating Officer and environment, energy and infrastructure analyst at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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