The PM made a catastrophic error by pledging to return aid spending to hit the target

Published by The Daily Telegraph (18th March, 2021)

Boris Johnson’s landmark foreign policy review, published on Tuesday, revealed the extent of his seismic blunder on aid spending. Four months ago, the Government said it was being forced to reduce the money it sprayed around the world due to the crippling costs of the pandemic. This decision sparked a relentless barrage of abuse from the aid industry and its parliamentary fan club, with allegations that the flint-hearted prime minister would be responsible for killing thousands of children and causing mass hunger. So now comes the screeching reversal.

Ministers tried to hold the line, pointing out that we would still be one of the world’s most generous donors when giving away £10 billion a year even if the great British giveaway had fallen a few billion in the pandemic. But they were spooked by the threat of backbench revolt, whipped up by a self-aggrandising aid sector that has grown fat from state largesse. So the review contains a pledge to restore aid handouts to hit the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent of national income.

Johnson has made a catastrophic strategic error that stems from political cowardice – and it will have long-term consequences both at home and abroad. He was right to slash aid, although should have gone further in trimming the overblown budget. His mistake was to pretend the move was forced on him by the pandemic, especially when continuing to spend so freely in many other areas. Instead the prime minister should have had the courage of his convictions to argue that the policy of fixing aid spending to meet the outdated UN target was flawed.

This aid target, created by campaigners half a century ago and ignored by most major economies, is absurd. Based on dodgy data from the very different world of the 1970s, it defies economic logic or political sense. As Johnson himself said, there is “inevitable waste as money is shoved out of the door” to hit the target. One minister at the former Department for International Development told me that he thought spending was about three times too high – but whenever he tried to terminate a dire project, officials simply rejigged the plan a bit and bounced it back to his office. He continued to block one especially egregious scheme, only to see it sail through within weeks of his departure.

Aid spending over the previous decade almost doubled under three Tory prime ministers, despite austerity at home with cuts to police and social care. Much of it is ludicrous. The problems were highlighted by former Africa minister Rory Stewart in a lecture at Yale three years ago when he pointed out that Britain spent about £4.5 billion over half a century in Malawi, one of the world’s least wealthy places, yet it became poorer. 

Since the money must be spent to hit the target, Britain ends up assisting repulsive regimes, including China, which has a bigger economy than our own and is sending missions to the moon. We pour funds into Rwanda while its repressive president Paul Kagame spends millions sponsoring Arsenal, his favourite football club. We even spend cash taken from taxpayers on officials in North Korea, the world’s most barbaric regime.

The torrent of cash has been terrific for the fat cat private consultants creaming off vast profits and for the bloated charities run by senior figures on chunky six-figure salaries, who became so desperate to protect their lucrative brands that they covered up sexual harassment and abuse. Bear in mind that David Miliband, among the fiercest critics of the aid cut, now earns more than $1 million running his New York-based NGO. It was no surprise also to learn that officials at Dfid were the highest paid in Whitehall before their department’s abolition.

Aid is largely an illusion. It offers simplistic solutions in complex places – and it is backed by naive parliamentarians who love to pose as saviours of the world with money taken from taxpayers while bathing in the warm praise of a self-serving poverty industry. Yet all too often the unfettered spending is a tragedy for people in poorer parts left suffering as it pours into the pockets of repressive regimes, encourages conflict, fuels the arms industry and fosters corruption in places that can least afford such corrosive practices, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. 

The Netherlands showed that it is possible to ditch the aid target openly and ignore the inevitable howls of pain from the aid lobby. Yet Johnson hid behind the pandemic to mask his plan to detach Britain from this hook. Now he confronts defeat, diminishing any hope of abandoning this foolish neo-colonial stance. Unfortunately, for all the high-blown talk of Global Britain as a bastion of freedom, it looks like our country will continue with these patronising policies that do little more than irritate many citizens at home while undermining democracy abroad.

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