Yes we... should: Foreign aid spending and how not to sell it

Sir John Major argues the case for foreign aid, but he must be careful about overstepping the mark.

Air aid siren: many are concerned with government spending
The Commentator
On 5 June 2011 12:44

A cursory glance at today's national papers leads us to the opinion of former Prime Minister Sir John Major, discussing the coalition government's policy on foreign aid.

An argument recently ensued between the office of the Prime Minister and that of the Secretary of Defence. Enshrining foreign aid commitments from the United Kingdom in a 'ringfence' was a Conservative manifesto pledge, alongside the budget-guzzling National Health Service.

But the Defence Secretary argued that the coalition is going too far in attempting to legislate on the former, meaning that Britain will be open to legal challenges if it does not meet a 0.7% GDP requirement over foreign aid. It's a tough one.

Fundamentally, foreign aid is a good thing, despite the economic circumstances the United Kingdom finds herself in. The idea of 'soft power', coined by Prof. Joseph Nye, means that Britain can maintain a healthy influence abroad, where our strategic interests lie, using institutions and culture. The British Council is often an excellent reflection of this. 

But soft diplomacy isn't the be all and end all, strategically or morally. Cheque books must be leveraged to ensure loyalty and the development of core infrastructure to allow foreign direct investment to grow and to put it bluntly, to keep China from eating our lunch.

Sir John Major makes the case that the UK helps to save three million people from poverty every year, has helped eradicate smallpox, reduced polio cases and increased the number of people able to access anti-Aids drugs. We're not paying for India's space programme, nor did we fund Bin Laden's villa in Abbottabad. Good things are done with aid spending and with tangible results, too. But there is something concerning about Sir John's justification further on:

"It's no surprise that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, the high-priests of global capitalism, have chosen to focus their vast philanthropic energies on tackling killer diseases in poor countries. If the private sector can do this, should not responsible Government do so as well?"

Not really. Scarcely if ever, can it be argued that because the private sector does something well, government should also give it a pop. It's almost counterintuitive to the idea that government only exists to do what the free market cannot or will not provide in terms of basic requirements. Barry Goldwater, in his ever pertinent Conscience of a Conservative stated of the US government:

"A study recently conducted by the Chicago Tribune showed that the federal government is now the "biggest land owner, property manager, renter, mover and hauler, medical clinician, lender, insurer, mortgage broker, employer, debtor, taxer and spender in all history."

And we imagine the British government isn't too far away from having its fingers in most of these pies also.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that while charities and philanthropists obviously do excellent work in this area, currently the landscape is not such that governments can remove their hand. Private individuals and charities have little or no interest in promoting the interests of their host country abroad. Rightly so, they don't have the inclination to champion the government's strategic interests. This is where the role of government is clear. 

To ensure long-term security and growth, government must continue foreign aid spending. The moral imperatives are more than clear and there is a gap in the market in protecting our strategic interests. Whether or not the commitment should be enshrined in law is another matter -- perhaps one that we'd advise against at this moment in time. But seriously, let us not underestimate the importance of foreign aid.

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