I’m normally quite quiet about my opinions, but the more I see of the world, particularly the developing world, the harder I’m finding it to keep quiet about the amount of misinformation I see in the media about certain topics. So, taking a leaf out of Bill Gates’ book (specifically, his ‘Stop the myth’ campaign), I decided to write this short piece on the myths about foreign aid. The catalyst for this was an article I saw in the Daily Mail online yesterday (11th February 2014), urging the public to sign a petition to “divert foreign aid to flood-hit British families”. In this article, the journalist argued that foreign aid was being wasted on so-called ‘vanity projects’ and would be much better spent on alleviating the suffering of British flood victims.
Whilst I sympathise with those whose homes and livelihoods have been damaged by the unprecedented amounts of rain that has fallen over the last few weeks, and am grateful that the little part of the UK that I live in remains unaffected, I have several issues with this article. Firstly, the common myth that by giving money to foreign aid, vast amount of money is being cut from other budgets such as flood relief is perpetuated. Whilst the amount pledged by the UK government (£11 billion) may sound like a lot, when faced with a large number such as this, it is important to put it into context. There are approximately 63 million people in the UK, of which around 29 million are tax payers. So, £11 billion per year (0.7% of gross national income) equates to £175 per person, or £380 per tax payer. This is an average, and so the less tax you pay, the less you contribute towards the foreign aid budget. Total UK government expenditure for 2013/14 is £720 billion (including £220 billion on social protection, £137 billion on health, £97 billion on education, £40 billion on defence) so £11 billion for foreign aid, it to some extent a ‘drop in the ocean’. Add to this that, in relation to UK flood relief efforts, David Cameron has announced that “money is no object” (11th Feb 2014). You’ll struggle to find anyone repeating this phrase in the majority of developing countries.
When we talk of flood relief in the UK, we are mainly talking about protecting people’s property and livelihoods, with health risks generally being much more of a minor consideration. This is not the case in many resource-poor countries. As well as the destruction of infrastructure (which is much less robust that our own), floods equate to more diseases; both those carried by the water such as cholera and typhoid, and those transmitted by insects such as malaria. There are indirect health effects also, such that as local road become impassable, access to healthcare is severely restricted and additional lives are lost. Whilst these international flooding events sometimes result in huge international relief campaigns such as those run by the UK’s disaster emergency committee, the majority of these pass under the international radar. The governments of these countries cannot make the statement that ‘money is no object’.
The truth about foreign aid is that a little investment can go such a long way, and the UK is fulfilling a social (and moral) obligation by donating a very small proportion of its overall wealth to those who desperately need it. Having been privileged enough to have visited rural Africa, I have some (limited) understanding on what extreme poverty actually means. In Malawi for example, 2 out of every 25 babies born die before the age of 1, and life expectancy at birth is 53. This is 20 times higher than the UK infant mortality rate (0.1 in every 25 births). We are a rich country, and £11 billion can do a lot to improve these figures through providing essential (but often cheap!) healthcare (e.g. vaccinations), infrastructure (e.g. roads, hospitals), education and humanitarian assistance (e.g. flood and drought relief). By cutting the UK’s foreign aid budget, UK residents are unlikely to notice the redistribution of this £11 billion, but those in developing countries certainly will.
The Daily Mail article in question lists several ‘vanity projects’ on which the UK has ‘squandered your billions’. On looking at this list, what strikes me the most is how poorly the Daily Mail has attempted to make their point. To me, this section simply highlighted the ways in which the UK is answering to its social responsibility as a rich developed country rather than squandering money. For example, they state that some of the £11 billion went towards the environmental schemes such as flood prevention schemes. Why should this be considered a negative? The UK taxpayers have helped to save lives, and we should feel good about that.
We have also provided foreign aid to “countries that don’t need it” such as Pakistan. The International Monetary Fund ranked Pakistan’s wealth as 138 out of 184 countries (2009-2013 data). Further their infant mortality rate is 1.5 out of every 25 births. Hence the reason for stating that this is a country that does not need aid is unclear. Malawi incidentally is 177 on this wealth list. The final point on their list is the most discrediting towards the author of this article, as it isn’t even referring to a government funded project, but rather a partnership between the UK government and industry (“Sainsbury’s given British aid to improve conditions for foreign suppliers – such as a radio show for Kenyan farmers”). Regardless of who donates this money, I again struggle to see why this is a bad thing. Large parts of rural Africa don’t have access to electricity, let alone a television or the internet, and as such the radio is a vital lifeline in communication. The radio show referred to will educate Kenyan farmers (plus farm workers, their families and communities) and on issues such as financial literacy, nutrition and health. Surely this should be applauded rather than berated?
Foreign aid is a sensitive topic, and we could all sit down and complain about the ways in which it is managed and distributed as nothing is perfect. I however fully support the UK government’s decision to fulfill its social obligation by setting aside £11 billion to those in other countries who are most in need. However, we are all entitled to our own opinions, and I respect that yours may differ to mine on this matter. All I ask is that people be aware that the so-called ’facts’ that we are inundated with by the media are often opinion-based or on occasion, outright lies. Check the sources of the article, and read around the headline – I think you’ll be surprised by how much misinformation there is out there.
HM treasury, via The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2013/mar/20/budget-2013-tax-spending-visualised#
CIA World Factbook: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/
International Monetary Fund: https://www.imf.org/external/data.htm