Everyone has their own ideas about how the government should spend our money, and I’m sure many of those ideas are totally bizarre. But when it comes to spending on outside our own borders, how much is too much?
Spending money on overseas aid splits opinion and is one of the issues that reveals how polarised the country is at the moment.
As it stands, the government is committed to giving 0.7% of its budget to international aid and development. The Institute for Fiscal Studies have crunched the numbers and spending on overseas aid nearly doubled between 2005 and 2016 – from £7.4 billion to £13.6 billion – and if the government sticks to the 0.7% target that could mean up to another £1 billion being added to the overseas aid fund between 2017 and 2021.
It’s a lot of money.
Especially when you consider that other government departments (apart from defence, health, and education) have faced cuts of an average of 28% (£48.8 billion). That means people losing benefits, local councils shutting services like libraries and social clubs, while prices for bills, food and transport have increased – austerity has taken its toll over the last decade and spending billions out with the country becomes harder to justify.
‘Charity begins at home’ is a clichéd argument of the populist right. Yet, on the face of it, it’s easy to see where it comes from as we are spending all this money on other countries when we don’t have our own house in order: homelessness and child poverty are increasing; the British Red Cross has been working in hospitals and has said the NHS faces a humanitarian crisis – many in this country need aid.
Nonetheless there are parts of the world where people live in conditions that are completely unimaginable to us here, and their struggles and quality of life are so far removed from even the poorest people in our country. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are having to eat tree bark because they are so hungry. And we have a basic moral responsibility, as an affluent and powerful country, to help those in need. That’s really the crux of the argument in favour of aid spending. Charity begins wherever it is needed.
Still, many point to a dependency culture that aid can create, and maintain that the best way to help struggling countries is not simply a matter of spending money but implementing trade deals and tackling corruption as well.
In order for people in developed countries to warm to the idea of spending money abroad, this is being sold to us as benefitting us as much as the people receiving it. For example we frequently hear from politicians about how aid combats terrorism, global diseases, and brings stability to regions; we all benefit from a global citizenry that is educated, empowered and striving to make a positive contribution to the world. In turn, some may be wary of aid being used to propagate Western values to countries that have their own cultures and beliefs.
Recent news reports concerning foreign aid charities involved in harassment and abuse also show how aid can be exploited by the powerful.
In any case, the polls don’t show any passion for international aid spending in the UK; in fact we’re the most unenthusiastic about aid spending in Europe despite being one of the biggest contributors. In 2013, 66% of sampled Brits thought that the amount of money being spent on overseas aid should decrease, and 17% thought that no money should be spent at all.
But the picture is complicated because at the last general election UKIP all but based their campaign on slashing overseas aid and their vote share plummeted. So despite apathy, voters don’t seem to care enough about the issue to make a strong statement against it.
And statements are important. As with many issues, people care deeply about one side or the other because of what their position says about their country and people rather than the finer details. The overseas aid debate is part of a wider argument of nationalism VS internationalism that is consuming much of the West.
So, are we global in outlook and stand ready to help even if it’s costly, or must we look to our own in times of hardship before attempting to solve the world’s problems?
By Chris Park