Some ‘little extras’ for despots and dictators, a lot less for the rest of us

Published by The Daily Mail (31st October, 2018)

Frankly, it was one of the most patronising lines heard in a Budget speech for a long time.  Philip Hammond, admitting classroom finances were stretched, declared that he was announcing a £400 million bonus ‘to help our schools buy the little extras they need’.

In one glib Budget phrase, the Chancellor managed to infuriate an influential chunk of the electorate while underlining the hollowness of talk on ending austerity. When schools are begging parents to help fund computers and textbooks, this was barely enough to give pupils a new set of pencils — and less than Hammond gave councils to fill in a few potholes.

Meanwhile, crime is rising, cities are becoming more violent, MPs are pressing for cash to help protect public safety — yet hard-pressed police received nothing beyond £160m for those fighting terrorism.

Prisons are in terrible crisis — yet the justice department budget is being cut. Social care is crumbling — yet services were given about one-third the amount they need just to cope with existing demand in an ageing and rising population.

But one slab of spending grew substantially bigger as always — the sums frittered away on foreign aid, which continued their inexorable surge with an extra £230m set to be sprayed around the world next year.

So the total given away by Britain will top £14bn — enough to fund 2,166 nurses for every English hospital trust, 90 teachers for every secondary school or to build enough social housing for a new city the size of Liverpool.

Alternatively, given the international tensions, those billions taken from beleaguered taxpayers to make politicians look compassionate could double the number of troops in our depleted forces with enough change for 160 new tanks.

Ministers like to argue they are tackling welfare dependency, pressing on with their controversial universal credit scheme — yet even some African leaders point out they are fostering just such dependency abroad when giving away these vast sums.

Aid spending has almost doubled since the last year of Labour government in 2009 under two PMs leading a party that claims fiscal probity.

Bear in mind that even after eight long years of austerity, Britain still borrows £26bn a year. This means we are getting further into debt to ensure we meet a discredited foreign aid target of giving away 0.7 per cent of national income each year — while Hammond has abandoned the Government’s long-cherished idea of paying off the deficit.

I would not mind if thanks to our glorious munificence the poorest people on the planet were getting richer, corruption was being wiped out, wars were being thwarted and repressive regimes replaced by shiny new democracies.

Sadly, the opposite is true — even as aid does save lives with vaccinations and emergency relief. This torrent of cash undermines democracy, fuels conflict and assists gruesome despots.

And the aid sector has grown so bloated, so desperate to protect its lucrative brands, it is riven with abuse and corruption as a consequence.

A disturbing new report by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, our aid watchdog, into £1.3bn spent over four years on efforts to improve maternal health in developing nations shows how the taint of corruption wafts through the corridors of Whitehall.

This report exposes all the usual dismal patterns of the aid industry: grandstanding at glitzy global conferences; spiralling sums spent with scant evidence based on unrealistic assumptions; failure to meet monitoring pledges; ignoring local people; undermining public services.

But it also reveals something more sinister — that the Department for International Development (Dfid) inflated claims of success and deceived the British voters who fund this aid by boasting it had saved the lives of 103,000 women.

The vast bulk of deaths it claimed to have prevented were through contraception. So the department was claiming to have saved women from dying as a result of giving birth . . . even though the babies had never actually been conceived. It is beyond satire.

In Malawi, Dfid claimed to have saved 2,000 lives through family planning. Yet teenage pregnancies rose, which in reality indicates a lack of contraception. Officials also claimed to have saved 10,100 lives in four years when official figures showed maternal mortality rates stayed the same.

The litany of failed foreign aid projects seems endless. Earlier this month I was in Ghana visiting struggling villages being showered with British cash in a £230m project. It was designed to prove that aid works.

The reality was very different. Despite spending £2,906 per household in a region where farmers say they do well to earn £160 a year, a scathing review for the Government concluded ‘the project does not appear to have reduced poverty or hunger at all’.

It also found factors explicitly targeted such as child mortality, vaccination rates, access to drinking water, ante-natal care and even mobile phone usage were not improved. Meanwhile, 31 per cent of funds went on management and overheads.

I visited a school with a sign boasting of being built with British aid. One room that had held seven computers was empty since the solar power system had broken. Another filled with broken desks.

Development economists know it takes more than giant dollops of foreign cash to transform poor or troubled societies. Yet politicians ignore even their own evidence to carry on pumping cash into vainglorious projects around the globe.

I have learned through bitter experience to be wary of the ludicrous statistics spewed out by ministers and their acolytes in defence of daft aid policies.

Two years ago Dfid bragged about aiding ‘freer and fairer elections in 13 countries’. I discovered these included two notoriously corrupt African autocracies, a ballot in Asia scarred by sectarian violence plus a Middle Eastern contest with only one candidate.

Little wonder support for these spendthrift policies is falling — not least when we give £64m to a blood-soaked regime in Rwanda, which then hands a reported £30m to Arsenal, the dictator’s favourite premiership football team.

Not to mention all those self-serving charities and profit-hungry private consultants growing fat on taxpayer largesse at a time when global poverty is falling fast due to capitalism, technology and medical advances.

Many MPs know the great British aid giveaway is crazy and that the arguments for aid contain more holes than a colander.

They can also see how most rival nations simply ignore the flawed United Nations-set 0.7 per cent of GDP target. Even before Trump, the U.S. was giving away less than 0.2 per cent. None of the other major economies in the G7 — Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan — are hitting the UN target that prioritises spending over need.

It is absurd that Britain doled out nearly £1 for every £6 spent on aid by these wealthiest nations.

One former foreign office minister told me the real level of British aid based on need and effective spending should be ‘at most’ £3bn. Just think how another £11bn could help the police, schools or the social care system.

Instead the Government has decided British schools can struggle because they must keep on offering ‘little extras’ for corrupt dictators, conference organisers and fat-cat charity chiefs.

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