The UK is Failing on Aid - An Argument to Give More

Daniel Priestley - Writer & Editor

The world is currently plagued by inequality in both national and international borders; divided in terms of levels of poverty, with less economically developed countries in Africa and elsewhere suffering a significantly worse quality of life than those that live in the West. Whether the source of this is colonialism, climate, market forces that have pushed “neoliberal policies that are leading to greater global inequality” or a combination of a wide range of factors, the vast inequality has led to Western countries, including the United Kingdom, committing to giving Aid to poorer countries to help alleviate poverty and suffering. 

The UK has committed to giving 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) towards global aid, meeting this target for the first time in 2013 when it “disbursed an estimated £11.4 billion in aid.” We have spent the last twenty years building a comprehensive legislative framework around aid spending. First, the 2002 Act ensured that aid must only be used for poverty relief, a term that has been critiqued for being incredibly broad. Second, the 2006 Act required DfID to produce detailed reports on how the aid budget is being spent and it’s progress towards the 0.7% budget. Finally the 2015 Act, in line with “a wider trend to include spending targets within legislation” enshrined the 0.7% GNI target in law. Critics have argued that “the passing of the 0.7% bill is a classic case of a battle being won while a war is being lost” as public opinion rallies against Aid, and the Act carries a lack of real deterrent for failing to meet the target.

The Arguments Against Aid

Some argue that aid represents throwing away our nation's wealth to other countries. This statement represents a lot of the general public’s opinion on aid because, after a decade of austerity, aid is “politically toxic”. In fact, a YouGov poll found that 66% of the British public thinks we should reduce our aid budget. Many british people believe that charity should start at home. Britain has become “stingy” and the taxpayers want to see their money used within national borders. To counter this under the Conservative governments, the Department for International Development has tried to reframe aid from charity to an investment. In recent years, emphasis has been placed on UK aid “working in Britain’s national interest” by creating safer countries abroad and investing in Britain’s future. This feels to me like an uncomfortable reframing of the debate on aid, and serves as acceptance of the idea that we don’t owe a duty to those who don’t live within our borders.

“More than $1 trillion has been sent to Africa over the last 50 years. And what has it all achieved?”

Others argue aid has been ineffective in solving problems. Aid can create problems “by postponing economic reforms and the emergence of a transparent and accountable government.” The status quo “is not getting money to the poor” and instead invests in ridiculous projects such as the eradication of super-sized mice and pushing forward nanny state objectives, with not enough being done to ensure “value for money.” These criticisms come from newspapers such as the Daily Mail, who undermine the ways aid is spent as an easy alternative to trying to argue that we don’t owe a duty to give aid. The Global Justice organisation is in favour of our 0.7% GNI commitment, and yet still publishes detailed criticism of the way that budget is being spent, because these criticisms are levelled towards the implementation of the budget, rather than the commitment itself. 

If arguments criticising our aid spending are weak, then critics must instead explore the idea that aid is conceptually flawed. There are four key arguments here. The first is that aid fails because by its nature it has to work in very difficult environments. We are giving aid to countries with “homicidal warlords,” corrupt government officials, and places with ongoing civil war. It is very difficult for government aid to be effective in these sorts of environments. The second argument is that aid cannot be separated from the interests of donor countries. Donor countries steer aid “to their favoured recipients.” For example, the US promotes “policies and alliances that suit its interests” and even without these issues, aid often ends up back with “British and American private consultancy firms.” Unfortunately, donations of large sums of money are susceptible to being exploited without proper oversight, rather than furthering poverty alleviation. Thirdly, aid is an ineffective way of boosting a country's economy in the long term. Governments are “interested in maximizing short term political support” so avoid using aid for long term development projects. Instead, the free market and businesses are the organisations that are incentivised to create sustainable long term economic growth, governments should focus on “removing barriers to trade and eliminating government-imposed distortions in the economy.” Fourthly and finally, there is an argument that aid is a patronising concept. Arguably, foreign aid is grounded in the belief that Africans cannot “improve their own lot in life without guidance and help” and the western view that “Africa is a perpetual beggar… rather than an actor in its own right.” For these reasons, critics argue that aid cannot be conceptually justified and therefore the UK shouldn’t give it. To justify the UK’s aid budget, we need to be able to respond to each of these arguments and establish why we have an ethical duty to help.

Justifying Aid and Our Current Budget

So how can we justify the UK’s commitment to aid? The first thing we must establish is why we have an ethical duty to help these countries. John Rawls argues that “well-ordered societies owe a duty of assistance to burdened societies.” This duty arises from the idea that the majority of global poverty can be eliminated through “minor modifications in the global order” that would at most entail a very small reduction in richer countries' income. Our duty to help arises from the amount that could be improved by minimal amounts of assistance. The duty of assistance requires we help build “stability, a pro-business environment, rule of law… and property rights.” Helping create enforceable human and property rights significantly improves the ability of a country to economically develop. Free markets cannot build economic growth in areas “where basic infrastructure is lacking” so we must support these countries so this growth can take place. We must help countries to “develop their economies” and manage their budgets to create pro-business environments. 

“Justice does not require we show perfect impartiality in all aspects of our lives”

Having established that we do have a duty of assistance, to justify the aid commitment we must also show that aid is effective. There are some very clear success stories for aid. For example, aid has been successful in reducing Guinea worm parasites by 99% in 20 years. Stopping aid would result in “the closure of thousands of schools and clinics across Africa, and an end to the HIV antiretroviral, malaria and TB programmes.” South Korea is also an excellent example of the success of aid. It was one of the poorest countries in the 1960s but now it is a donor of aid. “Foreign aid played a critical role” in allowing the country to build infrastructure and building the economy, showing that fulfilling the duty of assistance works. 

However, we cannot argue that global aid is a perfect solution or that our current institutional or legal framework around aid doesn’t come without its flaws. Firstly, the 2015 Act only requires that DfID gives reasons before parliament why the target has been met if the department fails to spend the money: “the commitment is only skin deep.” DfID has been accused of “pushing money out the door” to meet the target and spending “without any sense of strategic purpose.” Strict targets about the number of people aid money must reach has prevented workers in Ethiopia travelling to the “poorer, harder-to-reach parts of the country.” DfID is also moving towards channelling 30% of aid through other government departments by 2020 where “the risks of waste, even corruption, are largely ignored.” So whilst aid can work, it can also be seen that there are large factors within the UK’s systems that are preventing it from doing so. This does not undermine justifying our aid commitment, however, it is important to recognise that we need to be using this aid effectively. We must “get angry when the aid does not reach the poor.”

Supporters of the UK’s current aid commitments also need to explain why our duty does not go any further than the duty of assistance. The UK budget has far more income it could give, but chooses not to. Mathias Risse explores this idea stating that domestic and global justice “have different standards.” Risse uses the promotion of human rights within the global order as a standard we should be meeting for global justice. He believes there are strong egalitarian duties on the state within domestic borders but believes moving that burden beyond national borders is unfounded and unrealistic. The egalitarian duties only exist within state borders due to a shared membership within the state. Citizens of a state all exist under a shared coercion which is unique to states binding them together, and which creates “immediacy of interaction between individuals and state which is characterised both legally and politically.” Jon Mandle builds off this by linking the duty of assistance to people’s intuitive ideas of global justice. The general public does believe it has a duty to help but not to the point where they are sacrificing helping their own nation’s problems.

A Duty to Give More

We have established that aid can be effective and that we have a duty to help arising from our means. However, Peter Singer argues that we have a duty to help all people equally. Rich countries have been conditioned to believe that world poverty is “an occasion for minor charitable assistance” but in actual fact, the continuation of poverty, and deaths as a result of poverty, is a moral stain on every rich country in the world. Singer takes a utilitarian approach which argues that every action we take must ensure minimal suffering and there is no value in including national borders in this calculation. Suffering is suffering, wherever the person is, and if we have the means, we must help prevent it. 

This means that the act of giving all your discretionary income to charity is not a morally good deed, but a deed that meets a clear moral obligation. This “clearly gives rise to extraordinary demands” and Hinsch argues that it cannot be a part of a realistic utopia, because it is contrary to “the moral psychology of normal human beings.” Whilst the duty may be contrary to how humans normally think, and it may be a hugely demanding duty, these arguments do not invalidate its existence. It is true that the global economy currently relies on the spending of discretionary income within wealthier countries, rather than donating all that income to people living in poverty, but if the global economy is dependent on huge numbers of people living in poverty, then perhaps it is our duty to change it. Whilst some label Singer’s argument the “ethics of fantasy,” they often fail to argue with the core of Singer’s ideas: that the obligation to help exists and is incredibly strong.

“Past injustice creates considerable obligations for the present.”

Our commitment can also be seen as unjustifiably small when we link it with the historical damage Western countries have often done to the countries they are now donating aid to. Under colonialism, foreign territories were “economically exploited” by empire nations through “conquest and violent repression.” Whilst some argue that we are not responsible for the crimes of our ancestors, is it true that we should “inherit both the sins and the fruits of their sins”? Inequality grew during the colonial era, both nationally and internationally, and as a country who has profited vastly from systematic exploitation, if we owed a duty to these countries then, they are still owed it now.  As a critique of this perspective, some draw comparisons between our colonial history with African countries and the patronising relationship that aid can have in the modern day. However, it is important not to “indulge in moral narcissism… while neglecting to attend to the needs of those who ask our help from a distance.” Whilst we must, of course, be wary of colonial attitudes persisting, the focus should remain on helping to end the suffering that we have caused.

A final consideration about why we should give more comes from a practical comparison of the amount of wealth we have. Nearly three billion people in the world today live on less than two dollars a day (the World bank's poverty line). It has been reported that two hundred dollars can provide a typical two-year-old in a poorer country with health care through to the age of six. This will help them survive the most vulnerable years. We are already achieving so much through our current aid programme, and if we expanded that to meet our true ethical duties arising from the moral insignificance of national borders and our historic colonial sins, then we could have an aid budget that is justifiable. 

Conclusion

The arguments against distributing aid have been shown to be flawed by both the existence of a moral duty to help and the success stories that aid has had. Currently, DfID is experiencing many problems in distributing aid, and for that reason, it is very easy to level criticism at how the budget is currently functioning, whilst ignoring the core reasons that aid is justifiable and important.

Currently, with the 0.7% GNI aid commitment it feels we are meeting John Rawl’s duty to assist less economically developed countries which feels in line with the common sense human perspective. However, the commitment cannot be justified because our ethical duties go much further. We have a duty to help all people in the world and lift them out of poverty and suffering regardless of national borders. Further to that, we have an even greater duty to those we have historically exploited and profited from through colonialism. We should be channelling all of our discretionary income into lifting those who are suffering out of poverty, and only then will we be justified in our actions and meeting our ethical duties. We could be the country that helps others rise out of poverty and suffering in a sustainable way. 

green plant in clear glass vase


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Photo Credit - https://unsplash.com/photos/ZVprbBmT8QA 
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