Stop the spin. Focus on the dodgy facts

Published by The Mail on Sunday (17th April, 2016)

Democracy deserves to be cherished. As a foreign correspondent, I have covered protests, revolutions and wars around the world from people prepared to die or lose their liberty in its precious cause.

But it is a delicate creature, dating back centuries yet in need of constant reinvention. In our nation, as elsewhere in the West, this core concept is going through difficult times, with populaces feeling disconnected from elites and voters disenchanted with governments.

This is why I relish the success of this newspaper’s campaign to force fresh debate over one of the daftest pieces of legislation in recent times: the law that binds Britain in perpetuity to give away 0.7 per cent of national income in overseas aid.

For this is the sort of decision that disengages people from politics. It was a silly stunt – designed to make crude political points, utterly devoid of common sense and unsupported by hard evidence.

There are so many arguments against the move to enshrine the anachronistic United Nations target in British law that it was simply embarrassing to see mainstream parties close ranks in such bovine style to pass the measure last year.

It makes no sense on financial grounds to increase public debt while pumping rising sums of money into often-dubious projects abroad.

It makes no sense on compassionate grounds, since this deluge of aid undermines development, inflames corruption and fuels conflict in the poorest parts of the planet. It does not even make political sense.

The Government is now trapped in a self-inflicted nightmare of having every crisis, every cut and every spending shortage seen through the prism of an absurd foreign aid giveaway.

So we see ministers struggling to save our steel industry while helping leather industries in Africa. And when tax havens hit the headlines, it emerges our cash-strapped government hands them huge sums each year.

Already one in every seven pounds spent on aid by rich nations comes from Britain’s hard-pressed taxpayers. Regardless of need, this is due to rise another £4 billion to an astonishing £16 billion by the next General Election.

This leads to civil servants frantically shovelling cash out of Whitehall doors as the year ends to ensure they hit an arbitrary target – and fat-cat private contractors becoming richer in a booming poverty industry.

So all hail the people! And, dare I mention, the power of the much-maligned press. For when The Mail on Sunday put forward an online petition demanding a new debate in Parliament, readers responded in droves.

By the end of the first day, there were the 100,000 signatures needed to force Westminster to consider the request. Since then, numbers have more than doubled, now standing above 222,000 – and we have won a debate on June 13.

We must hope politicians show respect for this strength of feeling. Spin is no longer enough: they should engage in serious debate and defend their dubious policies.

For three weeks this paper has asked international development minister Justine Greening to answer ten pertinent questions about her policies. Each week she has refused, hiding behind a bland statement. This is typical of her department. It issues fusillades of statistics about its own brilliance and brags about transparency, yet is reluctant to back up its data.

Let me give you two examples. Since this paper launched its campaign, Dfid has rebutted claims that were not made and pushed out endless promotional material on social media.

These include the boast that British aid ‘supported freer and fairer elections in 13 countries in which 162.1 million people voted’.

I spent almost two weeks asking the team of press officers to tell taxpayers precisely how they did this; they failed to provide full details, despite the grandiose claim, finally saying it would take too much time. I was told to put in a Freedom of Information request instead.

I did discover that those 13 countries include Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe – hardly a shining example of good governance.

Dfid also pointed to a vote in Pakistan marred by sectarian violence, an election with only one candidate in Yemen and another in Uganda, where foreign observers condemned ‘the lack of a level playing field, the use of money and abuse of incumbency’. Veteran Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has just claimed his fifth election, incidentally, in another vote scarred by ballot-stuffing, bribery and intimidation.

Dfid also claim to have helped 101 million people gain ‘control over their own development and to hold decision-makers to account’. These include 4.1 million people in Ethiopia, home to a repressive one-party regime routinely accused of horrific human rights abuses.

So how was this done? A spokesman said ‘media support resulted in listeners to health radio programmes reporting more positive attitudes towards birth preparedness’. Listening to such a radio show may be helpful, but is not exactly the implied revolution in democracy.

This kind of spin is duplicitous. It helps corrode faith in domestic politics. And it shows why we should rejoice at renewing debate over focusing only on a fixed spending target rather than the reality of needs in a fast-changing world.

Obesity, for instance, is becoming a bigger problem than hunger. More citizens in poorer places go to sleep each night having consumed too many calories than go to bed hungry, underlining the breakneck pace of change on our planet.

Over the years I have observed money flood into a self-aggrandising aid industry that seems more focused on its own needs than those of developing nations, condemning the poor to struggle on against the twin curses of conflict and corruption.

Aid is not just about responding to disasters – the first line of defence for embattled ministers – but hundreds of expensive, nebulous schemes to promote fashionable fads.

One expert told me in despair about a multi-million-pound project to promote business in Nigeria, a highly entrepreneurial society, that relied on Europeans flying in to host workshops for state governors. ‘After a nice few days in a hotel the governors went home and it was claimed we had influenced 10,000 small firms. Everyone had a lovely time but it achieves nothing.’

No wonder I have heard anger from Africans and Asians provoked by the patronising attitudes of foreign do-gooders, sometimes propping up the dodgiest regimes.

The aid debate has become an issue of trust, forcing my confrontation with a government I respect on many other matters. Politicians have a duty to respond to public concerns, not hide behind hollow claims and spurious statistics.

It has also become a matter of democracy. It is about the right of British taxpayers to have more say in how they spend their own money and the right of developing nations to control their own destinies. So thank you, readers, for playing your role in forcing this vital debate.

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