Great Britain is great for many reasons. One may think of its history, culture, people, economic and political clout, among other things. However, there is one thing that tends to get overlooked, and that is Britain’s contributions in the realm of foreign aid.
Foreign aid is of course controversial in Britain as it is in America, with opponents claiming it to be a waste of taxpayers’ money, a boon for dictatorships, and a cycle of dependency which prevents developing nations from getting on their own two feet. At times, the debate gets boiled down to bean-counting and the critics believing that the money spent overseas should be better spent at home, especially during economically austere times.
This, I believe, is a zero-sum game which does not take into account the benefits – both short and long-term – of what foreign aid can do when properly and efficiently administered to help people in need across the world in a variety of ways, so that they may have better life outcomes and go on to attain many of the things many of us take for granted – the basic necessities of food, clean drinking water, shelter, clothing, and life-saving medication. However, this is not just about giving things to people; it’s also about economic development through means such as education, aiding the creation of a civil and open society, respecting human rights, and opening people up to the world around them, so that they may become better-informed, well-rounded, and more able to make wise decisions for themselves, their families, and communities.
Developed countries such as the United Kingdom are well-positioned to lead the effort to assist developing countries and their citizens with humanitarian aid and economic development, and to this end, the UK Government has committed itself to spending 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) per year in this area.
Again, this is controversial for some people, and several newspapers ran luridly negative articles about UK Aid being wasted and simply given away (as if dumped from a helicopter) to dubious individuals and causes. In response, the Department for International Development (DFID) released a document to rebut such claims and to show how the money is being used effectively where needed on the behalf of the British taxpayer who underwrites it. This report, along with other research I’ve done, ought to be an example of how the UK is a generous country and that the efforts by the government ought to make everyone justifiably proud to be British.
People ought to take some pride in the fact that their country was at the forefront in the fight against Ebola in Africa. Many of us remember the level of international concern about this deadly virus and how it could have become a massive global health crisis, but it did not advance far and was contained thanks to the efforts of the UK leading the way on the ground against it. The massive response involved 10 governmental departments, four other public bodies, and several non-government organizations (NGO’s) and charities. In Sierra Leone, this effort resulted in reaching a 42 day target period during which there were no new Ebola cases in the fall of last year, and while there is still work to be done on several fronts, the highly coordinated effort in halting the spread of Ebola undoubtedly saved countless lives throughout the world and – in the UK national interest – was “the single most important way of preventing Ebola from infecting people in the UK.”
This is good enough in and of itself, but it only marks the end of the five year period during which the United Kingdom made great strides with the use of its foreign aid and international development resources, and can stand tall and proud with what it has accomplished.
In terms of wealth creation, UK Aid has provided 68.9 million people with access to financial services to help them work their way out of poverty, so that they have the tools to improve their lot and become self-sufficient. This self-sufficiency is aided by efforts to increase access to education, and in this area, the UK has been responsible for supporting 11 million children in primary and lower secondary education, so that they can have better opportunities and life outcomes, and such outcomes are largely dependent on factors like health, water and sanitation, and nutrition.
Again, the UK played a significant role as it assisted in alleviating hunger among 28.5 million children under five and pregnant women through nutrition-relevant programs and ensured that those women could give birth (to the tune of 5.1 million births) safely with the help of professional medical staff., which have saved the lives of women in pregnancy and childbirth, as well as newborn babies. Britain also invested in vaccines, drugs, and 47 million insecticide-treated bed nets which have helped to contribute to malaria deaths falling by 60% in the last 15 years, as well as supporting efforts to increase access to clean water, better sanitation, and improved hygiene conditions to 62.9 million people. Thanks in part to Britain, 43.8 million children have been immunized against preventable diseases the Gavi Alliance, 13.2 million people have been given access to vital treatments for tuberculosis through its contibutions to the Global Fund, and it has helped the fight against AIDS – saving lives every day.
Additionally, there has been the general provision of humanitarian need such as emergency food assistance to 13 million people, helping 15 million people cope with the effects of climate change, and engaging in critical scientific research which helped to eliminate cattle diseases and develop a new disease-resistance crop which has increased food production and security for around 3 million people. UK Aid also helps to build civil societies by enabling better governance and security by supporting free and fair elections in which 162.1 million voted, as well as funding organizations which work to defend freedom of expression and the free flow of information. Among these are BBC Media Action, which encourages the opening of societies by using the power of media, along with ADD International, SightSavers, and other organizations dedicated to the rights of the disabled.
Indeed, this is quite a lot that the UK has been doing year after year, and yet it still does more during emergency situations such as dealing with the effects of war and natural disasters. This is seen in its response to the plight of people displaced by the Syrian Civil War, who have been the recipients of nearly 20 million food rations that have been distributed by the United Kingdom, in addition to sanitation needs, water, medical care and other relief items. UK Aid has also been helpful in assisting 200,000 Syrian refugees back into school after being uprooted from their schools back home.
In the aftermath of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal last year, Britain helped in the recovery and relief of that devastated country by delivering shelter kits which have helped to house over 280,000 people, British humanitarian workers were among the first to descend on the Philippines to help out after a typhoon hit, and UK Aid also assisted in the effort to safely remove landmines from places ravaged by war such as Afghanistan, so that farmers can use the land that have without fear.
With regard to women and girls, the UK has taken action to substantially improve their lives in areas where they are particularly vulnerable to the effects of war, poverty, and cultural traditions. It has worked to help child brides get out of forced/arranged marriages and into school, so that they came be empowered to take control of their lives and go on to become doctors, educators, engineers, lawyers, business professionals, and other professions and occupations. Britain has also taken action to combat against women and girls, as well as female genital mutilation (FGM) by getting various tribes to abandon the awful practice and to campaign against it themselves. More generally, it has worked to increase access to essential medical care, modern methods of family planning, vaccines, food and water, clothing, improved security and justice, and shelter for woman and girls.
All of these things are important because it makes it more likely that women and girls will marry later, have higher incomes, take part in decision-making, escape poverty, and have fewer but healthier children who end up going to school themselves. As such, they will also be less likely to contract diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria, undergo FGM, die in pregnancy and childbirth, or have children who die in infancy. These are significant achievements in the name of the British people.
In an overall sense, these actions by the UK Government are about getting developing countries on their feet by improving the lives and life outcomes of the people who live there, so that they may go on to help build their communities and improve their countries from within. From global perspective, it is about using the UK’s substantial expertise in science, research, and development to combat scourges such as disease and violence so that they may be contained and eliminated. In the long-term, it seeks end the cycle of poverty, disease, and war which has prevented people and countries from reaching their full potential, and it speaks to working in the UK national interest, because all the aforementioned issues are the root causes of insecurity, lack of development, wide-scale public health risks, and general instability, which is not in the UK national interest.
To this end, the government has outlined four objectives for foreign aid and international development:
- Strengthening global peace, security and governance: the government will invest more to tackle the causes of instability, insecurity and conflict, and to tackle crime and corruption. This is fundamental to poverty reduction overseas, and will also strengthen our own national security at home.
- Strengthening resilience and response to crises: this includes more support for ongoing crises, including that in Syria and other countries in the MENA region; more science and technology spend on global public health risks such as antimicrobial resistance, and support for efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
- Promoting global prosperity: the government will use ODA to promote economic development and prosperity in the developing world. This will contribute to the reduction of poverty and also strengthen UK trade and investment opportunities around the world.
- Tackling extreme poverty and helping the world’s most vulnerable: the government will strive to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030, and support the world’s poorest people to ensure that every person has access to basic needs, including prioritizing the rights of girls and women. This will build security, stability and opportunity that will benefit us all.
In addition, the government has outlined the need for ensuring that there is value for money in all of this for the taxpayer, so there will be a focus on particularly stressed and fragile states, while also driving development in countries and regions where the UK has strong historical, cultural, and diaspora links, such as Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean, Africa, and South Asia, as well as honoring commitments in British Overseas Territories.
At the end of the day, all of this is being done with strategic objectives in place to provide help, relief, and development, and not doing it out of a sense of post-imperial guilt, but because it’s the decent, moral, and right thing to do and because it is in the national interest of the United Kingdom. Hence, the phrase at the beginning of the government report: “Tackling global challenges in the national interest.”
Now, what do the British public think of all this? Well, a recent survey shows that far from the heavily negative and hostile attitude perpetuated by some in the press, the people of the UK actually do believe in the value of helping people in developing countries and 86% believe that the government should keep good on its aid promises. Not only that, but the British people have also expressed their generosity through the donations from their own pockets to the tune of 1.1 billion pounds to the Disasters and Emergency Committee alone, as well as over 20,000 churches coming together for Christian Aid week in May.
So the British people are a generous people through the actions of themselves as private citizen and through the actions of their government, and even SNP MP Mhairi Black – committed as she is to the break-up of Britain – praised the UK Government for its role in providing critical aid. She said that such assistance has been used to help educate people on the basics of things such as preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and noted that in one case, “drugs British aid has funded” was the reason for an HIV-positive woman named Mary along with her children still being alive after her husband had infected and abandoned her.
Black further stated:
“It’s very rare to find me praising the Government but Britain is one of the better countries in terms of commitment to foreign aid…and having seen the difference it makes to people’s lives, I think it’s highly important that we maintain that level of support.”
Indeed, Britain does have one of the largest aid budgets in the world, which fluctuates year-to-year according to how much gross national income (GNI) is generated. What’s interesting is how the Department for International Development (DFID) is one of the smallest among Whitehall departments, spends the second-smallest amount on administrative staff, and spends only 1% of its salary-related costs on consultants and temporary staff, compared to 6-8% in other departments. Together, it has a staff of around 2,000 to conduct such important work, and all of this may be a model of efficiency and value for money which other departments should seek to emulate.
Again, the money spent and the role of foreign aid is controversial, but in a world where soft power is increasingly important to the building and shaping of international relations, the United Kingdom’s deployment of soft power is second to none in the world and overseas aid is a significant part of that. If done correctly and with a stated strategic purpose, it can result in long-term dividends to make the world a better place for all of us, and can count as one of many things for which Britain is a force for good as a significant world power. Indeed, there should be some satisfaction in seeing people around the world receiving much-needed help in form of a tent or food package with the Union Flag and the words “UK Aid – From the British People”.
This is the face which Britain would do well to show alongside its military and diplomatic abilities on the world stage as a country what is compassionate, generous, and willing to do its bit to help others with the resources it commands.