A recent article in The Sun by Matt Dathan – ‘Furious Tories demand ministers fix problems at home FIRST as foreign aid budget soars £500m to £14billion’. We’ve all heard this message umpteen times, the idea that we’re spending outrageous sums on charity and should take care of our own first.
£14bn sounds like a lot of money. Hell, I could get some avocado toast and maybe have enough left over for a house. But what does this mean in the context of the economy? In Full Fact’s article on the foreign aid budget, they explain:
For every hundred pounds that’s made in the UK, seventy pence goes towards foreign aid.
Another way to say this is that the government has a target to spend 0.7% of the UK’s Gross National Income on overseas development aid each year. Gross National Income (GNI) is the UK’s annual output of goods and services, plus any income we get from abroad.
Oh. That doesn’t sound like we’re hemorrhaging cash on charity to me. 70p per hundred quid. I’m no economist, but surely we can afford to spend 0.7% of our GNI on foreign aid and still take care of UK citizens? As a nation, we ought to be able to do two things at once.
People have noticed the discrepancy between our aid budget and degrading services at home. The Sun:
Nigel Evans, who sits on the Commons International Development committee, called for a change in rules governing overseas aid.
He said: “The taxpayer looks around towns and cities staring at potholes, police stations closed etc and wonders why we’ve got money for foreign aid but not for essentials at home.”
Good question! But here’s where I take a sharp swerve from the viewpoint expressed in that article.
We don’t have to reduce the foreign aid budget – 0.7% of GNI – to fix potholes and properly fund public services.
It’s not as though the Tories were sat in Downing Street, wringing their hands, ‘oh, we want to take care of our own but we can’t, there’s no way to afford it, if only we could take it from the foreign aid budget’. One of the great lies of conservatism is pretending the money to do something doesn’t exist, justifying austerity – which actually harms the economy – while the wealthiest profit from handouts.
As Dave Prentis wrote in New Statesman:
While hospital porters, school support staff and care workers have been forced to pay – in lost jobs and slashed wages – for the mistakes of the financial sector, the wealthiest in our society got a tax cut. The government claimed that reducing the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p in 2013 wouldn’t cost the government money. In fact, analysis carried out by UNISON shows that between 2013/14 and 2017/18 the income tax cuts for those earning over a million pounds a year alone have saved the nation’s super-wealthy on average £554,000 each. Those tax cuts have also cost the British taxpayer £8.6bn over those five years.
Trickle-down has been so debunked I’m not going to bother, and austerity simply doesn’t make economic sense. Again, I’m no economist, but Another Angry Voice has a solid article on fiscal multipliers, which seem very significant in all this. Basically, you can’t cut your way to growth. You have to invest to earn. Spending on things would help the economy!
Since it’s well within our national ability to take care of our public services while maintaining a 0.7% foreign aid budget, we don’t have to ‘fix problems at home first’. If we want to fix problems at home, what we really need is to move away from right-wing neoliberalism and toward an economic system which would work better for most of the population. Let’s not blame the global poor for the actions of our own government and the greed of tax-dodging millionaires.
Personally I think that a move to social democracy under Corbyn would be a big step in the right direction, and it’s immensely frustrating that people keep straw-manning Labour’s policy (re: Venezuela or the USSR) when many of the policies are mainstream in countries which recovered better from the 2008 crash. Skim the manifesto at least, eh? Not a slicey boi in sight.
There have also been complaints about aid money being spent unwisely. However, as Ben Chu wrote in The Independent, pointing out individual instances of questionable projects doesn’t discredit the concept of foreign aid itself:
Solving entrenched problems of poverty is a complicated business. What works in one developing country’s context may not work in another’s. The key is learning from failures. This demands rigorous analysis by independent experts and the swift cancellation of programmes that are not delivering.
(Interestingly, we’re spending aid money to help Yemen while selling Saudi Arabia the very arms they’re attacking Yemen with. Hmm. Will the right complain about this one?)
The trope of looking after home first has some superficial common sense to it, but the economic argument falls apart on examination; and as for the moral argument, there isn’t a leg to stand on. Suppose we did focus on home. At what point would the narrative switch to, ‘okay, now we can help others’? Do we have to build a utopia here first? Dig into this trope, and there’s a dark nationalism at play.
Our foreign aid budget is one of the things I feel positive about this country for. It’s only right we do something as a nation to try to help others out a bit – something that isn’t ‘bomb things until they’re better’.
We have the capacity to improve the situation at home while maintaining our foreign aid. We don’t have to choose, do one thing first than the other. We can multitask. And I believe that we should multitask.