“For each action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” goes Newton’s Third Law of Physics. Politics has no such hard and fast rules, but it’s true that the Brexit decision to withdraw from the EU has led to a counterbalancing force: a desire to assert our place in the world.
Ministers speak of ‘Global Britain’ and press that “The UK is exiting the EU, not withdrawing from Europe”. At the UN last month, Prime Minister Theresa May spoke about the UK’s commitment to global cooperation and rules, a sharp contrast with President Trump’s talk of national interest. International Development Secretary Priti Patel talks of the UK’s need to stand tall in the world.
Nowhere is this vision for Global Britain better expressed than through our aid budget: The 7p of every £10 of national income that we use to build better futures for men, women and children living in often desperate poverty.
But decisions taken this week could significantly affect whether the UK’s aid budget is delivered in line with the idea of a Global Britain as a major player on the world stage committed to international cooperation.
On Monday and Tuesday, Priti Patel joins other members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) to discuss the challenges in providing aid across the world. The OECD-DAC has for the last 57 years convened donor governments to set basic rules and standards for aid. It is how rich countries hold each other to account for ensuring that their aid reaches developing countries, responds to country needs and is spent well. In short, the OECD ensures that aid means aid.
For the UK to effectively leave this group by rejecting its rules would be a major concern for the future of aid and its core aim of stamping out poverty. Yet there are real fears that the UK will consider this step if it is not allowed to change the rules on what counts as aid. The government made this threat implicit in the Conservative manifesto. Specifically, the UK government wants to see an exception made so it can use aid to rebuild the UK Overseas Territories that were devastated by Hurricane Irma: the islands of Anguilla, British Virgin Islands (BVI) and Turks and Caicos, despite them being high income countries.
It is right that the Government does all it can to help them. We all feel utmost sympathy for those affected, and the devastation is undeniable. But it is hard to imagine how other OECD members could agree for the UK alone to take this money from its aid budget to spend in places that are not developing countries. Such a move is unprecedented. No other donor has asked for such a waiver, despite many other hurricanes hitting the Caribbean in recent years and affecting territories of other OECD countries.
Pre-hurricane, the British Virgin Islands and Turks and Caicos had per capita income levels higher than Portugal and (in the case of BVI) Spain. UK Overseas Territories are set to receive at least $3 billion in insurance pay-outs for the damage caused by Irma. This is worlds apart from where the UK Government usually delivers humanitarian assistance; places where most people don’t have enough to get by even before disasters hit, and insurance is a luxury few can afford. The aid budget is not infinite. People trapped in conflicts like Yemen, Syria, and South Sudan, and the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people living in over-crowded camps in Bangladesh, deserve the world’s full attention. Last month, it was announced that the number of hungry people in the world had increased for the first time in over a decade, raising fears that decades of progress could be at risk. Choices must be made, and aid money spent in the Overseas Territories would be taken from other causes elsewhere.
That is not to say that aid rules cannot evolve to reflect changes and to address the needs of small islands. These islands do have special vulnerabilities, especially with a changing climate, and no one wants to see an island pushed into poverty because disaster has struck. What the UK and other OECD members need to do is work to develop appropriate changes to aid rules, which address the needs of all vulnerable small islands facing extreme need in the face of natural disasters.
Walking away from the OECD’s aid rules would also imperil the UK’s legal commitment to spend 0.7 percent of our income on aid. Without recognised agreement on what can count as aid, 0.7 percent is an empty promise. It also risks starting a chain reaction of countries self-defining aid. Whilst the UK may have every noble intention, the threat is that others – such as President Trump – will push to use aid however they want.
We have a very proud record on aid. Meeting our aid commitment does indeed ensure that the UK walks tall in the world. As the Government negotiates our exit from the EU and sets out what it means by a truly ‘Global Britain’, UK aid must remain dedicated to the poorest people in the poorest countries.