In the post-Brexit environment, it might seem easy for the UK government to bow to inward pressures and retreat from its international aid commitments. After all, the UK’s development aid budget has always been a political hot potato and its international financial commitments frequently come in for criticism from the public and media alike.
But while public support for overseas aid programmes might be volatile, cutting or repositioning that expenditure could have wide-ranging repercussions. With the UK’s economy already feeling the effects of the post-referendum environment, further uncertainty relating to international relations is the last thing both government and business leaders need to be facing.
As things stand, the UK’s aid spend is higher than most other developed nations. A select few, including Sweden and Norway, do give more but the UK’s support for the developing world has increased markedly over the past two decades.
The initial hike was introduced by Tony Blair’s New Labour shortly after its landslide election victory in 1997, and then continued throughout the party’s 13-year stint in Government. But it was continued as part of David Cameron’s ‘compassionate Conservatism’, meaning the UK currently spends 0.7% of its gross national income on international aid, far more than US, France and many other nations.
In such uncertain economic times the international aid budget might seem an easy target. And there have been voices suggesting Ministers should use the aid budget to repatriate foreign prisoners, or to secure preferential trade deals with developing countries. However, such panic moves could have very negative consequences, both for us and for the world’s poorer nations, and I believe what is actually required is continued and constructive dialogue so as to ease the tensions with the European Union and the nations within it.
The rationale for developed nations supporting developing ones is well known, and it starts from a basic humanitarian concern with millions of people living in poverty and intense inequality. If we go back into history, countries in Africa and elsewhere in Asia and South America were integrated into a global capitalist system which disadvantaged them, and they essentially became commodity suppliers. The vast majority of colonised countries have remained economically behind due to a combination of structural inequalities and domestic problems. International development aid is recognition of the structural and historical dimension to global inequality (while of course recognising that the choices poorer countries make are paramount).