Bill Gates is right – we must keep the UK's commitment to foreign aid
The first chance we had to examine exactly how Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and the rest will conduct the general election campaign came during Prime Minister's Questions this week.
Opposition MPs asked why the Prime Minister had ruled out calling an early general election and then done exactly that – seeking to frame her as an opportunist. Mrs May herself took the opportunity to paint Jeremy Corbyn and Labour as chaotic and unprepared for power.
Amid the pantomime and the planted questions though, there was an answer the Prime Minister gave that was very worrying indeed.
She was asked by one of her own MPs, Richard Benyon, whether 'the commitment to NATO to spend two per cent of GDP on defence and our commitment to the UN to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on overseas aid' would be honoured by a future Conservative government.
Having promised that the NATO pledge would go on being met, May then only said on the aid budget, 'We are meeting our UN commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on overseas development assistance.'
This statement of fact – that the UK is currently meeting this commitment – means little. What matters is the promise to keep it enshrined in law – and on that front there was no commitment whatsoever.
The pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of what the UK earns on the aid budget to alleviate poverty in developing countries was only passed in 2015. Seen by some cynics as a further attempt by David Cameron to 'detoxify' the Conservative brand, it was broadly welcomed by the development sector, with the UK becoming the first G7 country to meet the target set by the UN as long ago as 1970.
It means that around £11 billion per year is currently being spent supporting projects overseas. Bill Gates is among those urging Mrs May to retain the commitment to 0.7 per cent of GNI being spent on aid. He says: 'It was a well-considered decision that sets an example for other wealthy Western countries. It also is visible proof of the UK's goodwill and humanity... Withdrawing aid would cost lives – which is reason enough to continue it.'
Why would May not promise to keep the law as it stands and retain the ring-fenced figure? After all, it is an area where the UK is leading the world. Foreign aid has been shown to be good for UK business, quite apart from it being the right thing to do for such a privileged country (not to mention one with a history of colonialist exploitation which partially led to our current relative wealth).
The answer is simple – the aid budget, and particularly the 0.7 per cent figure, is under sustained and heavy attack from the hard right press. The Mail On Sunday has consistently sniped at the aid budget, while the Express has parroted the attacks repeatedly. The Conservatives have placated these newspapers by driving through Brexit, but they now have the aid budget in their sights – and any Conservative Prime Minister desperately wants to retain the support of these newspapers.
Aside from the realpolitik, does the popular press have a point? At a time of crisis in the NHS and reports of schools and police struggling financially, should we be sending billions overseas? And what about the inefficiencies?
First, it's important to acknowledge that foreign aid needs to be done well and if the renewed focus helps it to be spent better, that's a good thing. Correctly, serious questions have been asked as to how foreign aid money has been spent by the likes of Adam Smith International.
Yet the principle of giving 0.7 per cent is the right thing to do. It provides a minimum standard below which we will not fall, and encourages other countries to be generous. Conservative former International Development Minister Sir Desmond Swayne, who's a Christian, says he wouldn't want to spend time with someone who thought 99.3 per cent of their money wasn't enough to spend on themselves. He's right. It should be a mark of pride as a country that we are among the leading nations contributing to the rest of the world.
Yes, there are funding shortages at home that we need to focus on. The answer to these isn't to cut foreign aid. It's an easy target for populist politicians seeking to appease the sort of people who say we should 'look after our own'. The kind of people who lurk not just below the line in the comments sections, but the kind of people who edit powerful newspapers. The kind of people who don't understand the fundamental Christian insight that I am my brother's keeper, even if he lives on the other side of the world, and that the Good Samaritan's vision must be realised anew in each generation.
Individual charity is important, and it's vital we tackle unfair trading practices and the structural inequality which leads to so much world poverty. But the British aid budget is something we should be proud of – and keep in our minds when we go into the ballot box.