Romilly Greenhill: UK foreign aid is a force for good - but must not be wasted

Philip Hammond at a refugee camp in Turkey in 2016. PIcture: PA
Philip Hammond at a refugee camp in Turkey in 2016. PIcture: PA
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Nobody likes false advertising. This is especially the case for our aid budget.

Most UK aid does exactly what it says on the tin.

It saves lives in emergencies, vaccinates people against killer diseases and helps children to get an education.

The problem arises when aid fails to meet the high standards expected of it. If it’s not doing what it says it will – if it’s not focused on supporting those in poverty – is it the real deal, is it ‘real’ aid?

‘Real’ aid is simple – it is focused primarily on helping those in poverty, it is transparent so we can track it, and it is effective, so that it achieves real change.

But as more aid is spent outside of the Department for International Development (DFID), the risk of standards slipping increases.

When this life-saving resource doesn’t live up to expectations, it doesn’t only fail the people it’s meant for – it lets down the British taxpayer as well.

Currently, around a third (30 per cent) of the UK’s aid budget is spent by other departments, such as the Foreign Office and the Home Office.

Because they have different priorities, their aid spending is not always focused on helping people in poverty.

The analysis by ONE, the organisation that I am part of, shows how ‘real’ each Department’s aid is.

It’s also the case that when we can’t easily find out how aid is spent, it raises the possibility of it not being delivered in the best way.

An estimated £1.5 billion worth of aid is being spent with little or no transparency about how it’s delivered.

And there is the issue of how effective the spending is at achieving results.

There are cross-Government funds such as the Prosperity Fund and the Newton Fund which spend aid in ways that seldom makes real change for the people living in extreme poverty.

The latter of these funds has three out of five of its biggest programmes focusing on reducing nitrogen in Chinese farming and on researching genetics – these 
are Chinese domestic issues, and are hardly going to help people facing famine or disease in the world’s poorest countries.

When UK aid is not poverty-focused, effective or transparent – it’s not bringing real change – it’s not ‘real’ aid.

This isn’t good enough.

The best way to address this – and improve our aid offer – is straightforward.

First, all aid should be approved by the International Development Secretary – regardless of which part of Government spends it.

This will ensure accountability, but also that it goes past the individual with a department full of experts who can tell it’s doing the job it’s meant for.

Second, every penny of UK aid should have eradicating poverty as its core purpose, tackling issues that matter to those in developing countries.

To help this, at least half of it should be spent in fragile states and the world’s poorest countries.

And lastly all Government departments spending aid should accelerate progress towards becoming more transparent, so that we can track every penny.

They’ve already agreed to this in the UK Aid Strategy – so now they should hurry up and make it a reality.

We should be proud of the good that our aid does globally – saving lives, providing opportunity and making the world a safer place is firmly in our national interest.

We’re recognised as a ‘development superpower’ because of how much we’ve done to improve the international rules that govern aid, and how by sticking to the rules we’ve helped agree shows 
we’re trustworthy.

But unless we make sure that all aid is doing what it’s meant to, until it’s ‘real’ aid – we risk not only this global reputation (which is exactly the sort of thing we need at this moment of national change with Brexit), we’re also undermining the good it does for those in poverty and the faith of the British people.

Romilly Greenhill is UK Director of ONE – a campaigning group specialising in aid.