The case for abolishing foreign aid

“Poor people in rich countries giving money to rich people in poor countries.” That was what Prof. Peter Bauer used to say of foreign aid.

Is DfID really helping?
Tim Knox
On 21 May 2011 08:51

“Teem, I vant diss pamphlet to be my svansunk.” My conversations with the great Professor Peter Bauer  were always rather fraught. More than sixty years after leaving Budapest, he still spoke with a thick Hungarian accent. On top of that, he was now hard of hearing. And I mumble a lot. Our conversations tended to be a bit stilted.

We were going through the proofs of his Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet, "50 Years of Failure", in which he elegantly summarised his life’s work analysing the futile – and often disastrous – consequences of international aid.

It was Bauer who had come up with the memorable description of aid as “Poor people in rich countries giving money to rich people in poor countries.” (“I do not remember saying zat. But I am glad zat people think I did.”)

He was far from well. Eventually I worked out what he had said: “I want this pamphlet to be my swansong”. I muttered some meaningless reassurances. “NO! Zat is not true. I am dyink.”

I tried to change the subject. The pamphlet might have made the case against foreign aid brilliantly, I suggested. But was it politically possible? I asked hesitantly. This only made things worse.

“You should not be vorried about zat! Zat is for the politicians.” His tone suggested that this was not a class he thought highly of. “You above all must, in ze words of ze newspaper, speek troose unto power.”

I was reminded of this conversation after seeing Melanie Phillips on Question Time last week when she made the case for abolishing DfID (the UK Department for International Development) with her customary clarity, fearlessness and vigour.

For today the case against aid is stronger than ever..

At a time of economic crisis, we are spending £6.5 billion on DfID this year, a figure budgeted to increase to £11.5 billion in 2014/15. It is surely right to ask why we are doing this when we continue to face real and desperate poverty in this country?

Remember that there are parts of Glasgow where life expectancy is lower than in the Gambia or the Gaza strip. And we all now surely recognise that the great leaps forward in fighting global poverty have come from free trade, good government and technological development, not aid.

But why stop with abolishing DfID? Last year, we also spent £18 billion a year on our contributions to the EU. And another £5 billion a year fighting a war which we know that we won’t win in Afghanistan. And another £12 billion in subsidies and loans which we probably won’t see again to prop up the euro and Ireland.

Now, it is debatable whether spending money in these ways is in our national interest. But what is clear, according to various opinion polls, is that cutting back on them would be popular. Billions would be saved. And this could be used for really useful things, like reversing the proposed £29 million – million, not billion – cuts to the World Service.

Or buying some planes to go on our aircraft carriers. Or greatly expanding and improving UK trade missions to the developing world and the Commonwealth. We would have fewer maimed and killed soldiers. Better defences. Stronger relations with the rest of the world. And enough saved to make a substantial dent in the deficit.

But there is a problem. These ideas may be popular in the country, but they are abhorred by the political class. This would all be "isolationist", "extremist", "little Englander", "xenophobic", "bonkers" even.

Maybe the political classes would be right. But remember what they said about anyone opposing the UK’s entry into the euro. They too were "isolationist", "extremist", "little Englander", "xenophobic", "bonkers".

But who looks "bonkers" now?

Tim Knox is Acting Director of the Centre for Policy Studies

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