The positive case for aid must be made - and false saviours must be ditched
This was an editorial written for TFN magazine in June - it's being reposted here as it is still relevant in light of this week's Commons vote which confirmed UK government's commitment to cut the aid budget.
To truly get a flavour of how beleaguered and imperilled the international aid sector is, you only need to look at its recent champions.
In politics recently we’ve been used to the solid melting into air, strange flowers growing in the uncanny valley.
And there were no stranger blooms than those who lined up recently as the champions of the UK’s commitment to spending on overseas aid.
What a crew to have on your side – Andrew Mitchell, David Davis, former PM Theresa May and a whole host of other Tory MPs, most of whom were proud to call themselves “aid sceptics”.
Never mind that maybe their previous, populist attacks on aid spending and the now-former Department for International Development helped set the mood music for Johnson and the ever-charming Esther McVey’s attack on the aid budget.
Here they were, making the eminently sensible point that a dubiously legal £4 billion reduction in spending will have – is having – immediate, real world impacts. Bluntly, these cuts will kill people.
Now, pushing through cuts that will destroy lives is not something this crew ever blanched at before – witness the devastation caused by their pursuit of austerity.
So what’s happening? Could this be the stirrings of conscience? Possibly – humans are strange, often contradictory creatures, and this lot at least appear to be human, in that they have pulses and breathe like the rest of us.
If you were being cynical, you’d suspect that this is more about inner-Tory party positioning. There are bigger battles to come for this lot as they conduct a guerrilla campaign against the more populist right elements in the party. International aid may have provided a useful organisational pole for future fights.
Partly this is what happens when there is no opposition – opposing forces emerge internally. And on this issue, there has been no opposition – beyond putting a tetchy Emily Thornberry on Newsnight, the Labour Party and its mute UK leader have said almost nothing.
And this, I think, gets to the heart of the problem. It could be that Labour has been so quiet because, as its new strategists peruse the Mandelson playbook, it calculates that backing international aid wins you nothing, certainly not votes in tricky by-elections.
And this is what has to change – and this is where, for the international aid part of the voluntary sector, opposition to this has to switch from the passive to the active.
The case must be made, and made in the strongest possible terms, for overseas aid. That there is no contradiction between helping those most in need abroad and those who need it here. That both of there are, in fact interlinked. And if you can’t demonstrate this in the context of a global health emergency, when can you?
Let’s ditch the soft-colonialism of pretending to support overseas aid as it allows the UK to project “soft power” and increase world standing, or strike trade deals.
Let’s focus on the real, material gains in terms of lives saved and transformed. Let’s make the case for overseas aid as it is simply the correct, human thing to do.
There is much reform needed in how aid actually makes its way to those on the ground, and what is provided should be empowering for communities. And the terrible failings of some aid organisations should not be shied away from. In some cases they have made the case for their own sector harder to make.
But these should be confronted head-on. Maybe some kind of Save Aid campaign is needed. The apparent divisions in the Tory party over this mean there could be an early opportunity for advance.
But the case must be made strongly and clearly by the sector itself – it shouldn’t have to come from a cabal of reformed ‘aid sceptics’.
Because if Theresa May or David Davis are the answer, then what the hell is the question we’re posing?
Graham Martin is editor of TFN.