International aid – a way to show post-Brexit Britain hasn’t turned its back on the world
On his last day in Downing Street, David Cameron said one of his proudest achievements was to honour the commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on international aid.
It was partly an attempt to stake out his legacy and partly a pitch to his successor, Theresa May, to stick to, what remains, a Conservative manifesto pledge.
Unfortunately for Cameron, even though he has an honourable record on aid, his legacy will be dominated by Brexit.
The former Prime Minister is destined to be remembered as the man who called the referendum on the UK remaining a member of the European Union and lost it, causing a political and economic shock that continues to reverberate well beyond the Britain.
As Mr Cameron was leaving his job, I was starting a new one as Director of News for Sightsavers, the NGO that works around the world to eliminate avoidable blindness and promote equality for people with visual impairments and other disabilities.
The sense of shock the vote to leave the EU, and the uncertain mood that has surrounded it among people working in international development in the UK, was one of the first things that struck me.
Despite David Cameron’s emphasis on international aid in his parting words, the leave vote has generated a lot of pessimism among development NGOs about the post-Brexit future.
Michael O’Donnell of the sector’s umbrella organisation, Bond, argued in a recent blog, that future aid funding was threatened by the end of EU development money and the fall in the value of the pound, as well as the slow squeeze on unrestricted funding – the money NGOs receive that they can spend on such things as research and policy-making, rather than specific projects approved by their donors.
While it’s certainly true that many of the same political and media voices that backed leaving the EU are also ones that have been vocal in their criticism of protecting the aid budget at a time of austerity, the initial signs are the new Prime Minister was listening to her predecessor and not these siren voices.
In May’s reshaping of the government machine, several ministries have disappeared, but the Department for International Development has survived – a positive sign.
And although the new Secretary of State, Priti Patel, has expressed scepticism about the value of DfID in the past, when her predecessor, Justine Greening, was first appointed, there were reports she was less than keen on the idea of aid, yet she proved an effective minister.
The public mood that led to a majority voting to turn their backs on the EU doesn’t necessarily mean the majority of people in the UK want to turn their backs on the world.
After all, aid is not just the right thing to do for straightforward moral reasons.
When all is said and done, there is a hard-headed case for continuing David Cameron’s approach to aid and international development – and, irrespective of whether Britain is a member of the EU or not, this has not changed.
As Cameron argued when unveiling last year’s National Security and Defence Review, supporting development and good governance in the world’s poorest and most fragile countries also helps to ensure their stability and make it less likely they become havens and breeding grounds for terrorism or other threats to international peace.
In the long run moreover, well-managed international aid underpins efforts to lift people around the world out of poverty which means more potential customers for British exports.
It may sound paradoxical, but this hard-headed case for aid also encompasses the boost it gives to the UK’s soft power.
There is a growing consensus among British politicians that the country’s global influence derives from more than having the world’s fifth largest economy and one of its more capable militaries – it also derives from the admiration many people around the world have for the UK, its culture and the values it espouses .
Brits are generally seen as good global citizens.
The UK has been in the top two over recent years when global soft power is assessed – and Britain’s generosity as an international aid donor is widely seen as one of the keystones of that power.
2014’s House of Lords’ Soft Power Committee report recognised this and urged the government to build on DfID’s role in boosting the UK’s influence around the world.
Many prominent Brexiteers, including Ms Patel and the new Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, argued ahead of the EU referendum that leaving the EU would allow the UK to become more outward looking and to forge a new global role for itself.
Humility is required, but Britain’s generous approach to international aid can be a pillar underpinning whatever new course the UK ends up taking in the world.
It wasn’t pressure from the EU that led the UK to achieve the 0.7% target – that was home-grown.
So, leaving the EU doesn’t have to mean a bleak future for Britain’s international aid.