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Why David Cameron is right about aid and the right-wing Tory ideologues are wrong

2012 September 26
by Paul Vallely

Why give foreign aid at a time of austerity? It’s all wasted money anyway, squandered on bad projects and hijacked by corrupt politicians, say a handful of Tory back-benchers and right-wing ideologues. This is one of the great political lies of our time. Yesterday the prime minister went to New York to tell world leaders at the United Nations that they must keep their promises to increase spending on aid, as Britian has done. He was quite right to do so.

Last week authoritative figures were released on the number of children under the age of five who died from preventable causes. The number was 700,000 down in 2011 on the year before. It was the biggest annual fall in child mortality ever recorded. It was not a blip. Some 5 million fewer children died last year than in 1990. The fastest rates of reduction are in Africa.

In no small measure this is down to global aid levels. Aid has wiped out smallpox. It has controlled HIV and Aids in six million people. It has put 46 million more children  into school in the past two decades. It will vaccinate one child every two seconds for the next five years

Critics can always find examples of aid that fails. The National Audit Office recently found £48 million spent on four poor-value aid projects. Yet the total aid budget is £8bn. Comprehensive studies show that most aid is far better spent today than even a decade ago.

Aid can always be improved. So it is good that the new International Development Secretary Justine Greening is scrutinising the £500 million it pays to consultants – though she should bear in mind that aid was out-sourced in this way by her predecessor to slash the numbers of civil servants in DfID, one of the best development organisations in the world.

It is right too that programmes to individual countries should be kept under review.Indiais now the world’s 11th largest economy with its own space programme. Aid must eventually taper off there, though not so swiftly that it will put at risk help to the half billion desperately poor people who live there – more than in the whole of Africa put together.

New emphases are needed too. A Commons select committee has said theUKshould use aid to help poor countries collect taxes from their citizens. But that will be a slow process: even ifIndia’s middle class were taxed 100 per cent of its income dollar-a-day poverty there would fall by only 20 per cent.

Yet despite all this progress 5,000 children die every day from preventable diseases. Modern medical technology means that, if global promises on aid are kept, as Mr Cameron demanded at the United Nations yesterday, ours could be the generation that ensures no child dies of diarrhoea, pneumonia and perhaps even malaria.

There is a moral imperative to do that. But we also act out of self-interest. A stable and growing poor world will provide a market of several hundred million people into which we can sell our goods and services.  For every pound we invest in aid toAfrica, we already gain almost two pounds back through trade. Aid reduces poverty and boosts private-sector growth. And providing kickstarts to the economies of fragile states also reduces the chance they will turn into breeding grounds for international terrorism.

All this costs us less than a penny from every pound of our national income. The British people understand this. A 2010 poll found that 55 per cent of British people think we should keep our promises to boost aid, with just 27 per cent saying we should cut it. Britons vote with their wallets too; last year saw record contributions to charities like Save the Children and the highest-ever level of donations to Comic Relief. We must not break our promises to the world’s poor.

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