There are, of course, very powerful arguments in favour of maximising the amount of money which we donate to deserving causes of all kinds around the world. We are vastly rich by comparison with most places; a billion of us in the prosperous North go to bed obese while another billion elsewhere go to bed starving; we have inherited moral obligations not least from our Imperial past; and there are strong strategic reasons for supporting free liberal democracies round the world to prevent the levers of power falling into dangerous hands. A nuclear-armed Pakistan, for example, would look very different if we did not support them through our aid budgets. For all of those reasons, I have always supported the principle of generous overseas aid.
However, I originally opposed the introduction of a legally binding 0.7% of GDP for a variety of reasons. What if we don’t have enough good projects one year to get the spending up to that level? Do we ladle the cash out willy-nilly to avoid breaking the law? Some years we might morally want to spend more than 0.7%, but no Treasury would ever allow it. Because of the way it is calculated, a recession would mean an unfortunate reduction in the actual amount spent; and an economic boom might well mean money being wasted. We ought to be very careful about how we spend it- a great deal in the past has fallen into the wrong hands and supported dictators or corrupt governments.
And anyhow, what is the purpose of any such law? What possible sanction do we apply if the Government fails to achieve 0.7% of GDP one year? Does the PM go to prison? These should be matters for political decision- for ministers to decide and then to justify that decision alongside all of the other spending decisions they have to make.
Is 0.7% (roughly £14 Billion) for overseas aid more or less important than the £15 Billion for post Covid education demanded by Sir Kevan Collins? Is it more or less important than defending our Realm from overseas aggression (a Russian sub was spotted in the Irish Sea this week). Is it more or less important than extra spending on the NHS, maintaining the furlough scheme until we are safely out of the Pandemic, or a host of other priorities? These are the balanced decisions which ministers must make (and no matter how much they spend on anything it will be ‘not enough’) Juggling the post-Pandemic economy and government borrowing is a tricky job for Rishi Sunak at the best of times; doing so with one arm tied behind his back by a law which requires him to spend £14 Billion a year rather than the £10 Billion he is proposing on helping overseas aid projects makes his job impossible.
So despite my support for the moral and ethical and historical imperative of overseas aid, I will be voting with the Government against a rebel vote next week on the subject. And by doing so I will be helping the Government in their brave efforts to do what must be done to get us through this Pandemic and restore our previous prosperity. (7% growth predicted this week by that very careful organisation the OECD.) That is when we should once again turn our attention to using our wealth to help those less fortunate than ourselves around the world. I do not subscribe to the old cliché about “charity beginning at home”. We owe our charitable benevolence to poorer people across the world.
But just not yet.