International aid: goodwill or good riddance?
by Charis St. Clair Fisher, Consultant

The abuse of power by NGO staff has shone a spotlight once again on the 0.7% of Gross National Income (£13.4 billion in 2016) that the UK spends annually on overseas aid, partially reopening the debate over whether the target is evidence of Britain’s humanity or a misuse of taxpayers’ money.

A recent ComRes poll for Reputation Communications found that half the public (52%) take the latter view and do not want it to continue given the recent news stories about NGO staff abuse, while a quarter (26%) think it should remain in place.

But this sentiment is not new. Public scepticism over international aid was apparent well before the aid sector scandal: in 2016 a ComRes/United Nations Association poll found that three in five (59%) adults believe that the British Government should spend the foreign aid budget at home.

Yet earlier still, a ComRes/Daily Mail poll just before George Osborne’s 2015 Autumn Budget asked the public about reducing foreign aid as a way of reducing Government spending. It found that slightly more supported this measure than opposed (54% vs. 40%).

This scepticism is evident in respect of Government spending generally. A ComRes poll for MHP Communications before the 2017 Budget found that only one in five (22%) think the Government spends taxpayers’ money wisely. Taxpayers are seldom content to say that their taxes are spent well.

Is it likely that the 0.7% commitment will be slashed? It seems dubious, for at least three reasons:
First, although an attractive idea to half the public (and many in the media), Parliamentary support for abandoning the target is largely absent. Despite dividing the Tories, especially at grassroots level, it was (unexpectedly and with a slight caveat) included in their 2017 manifesto, along with that of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP. Going back on a manifesto promise would not be wise for the Government, particularly given its current, somewhat precarious, position.

Secondly, the Cameron-Clegg Coalition Government passed legislation in March 2015 which enshrined this commitment into law, so to resile from it would be cumbersome.

Finally, young people are significantly less likely than their older counterparts to view overseas aid as less of a priority than spending in the UK (50% of those aged 18-34 vs. 83% of those aged 55 and over). Given the electoral maths, the Conservative Party needs a measure that doesn’t make them look like the ‘nasty party’ with young voters they could do with making more of an effort to appeal to.

The aid budget will almost certainly stay but this doesn’t mean that there won’t be big changes in the aid sector. Penny Mordaunt, who was appointed International Development Secretary in November, has said she is committed to a ‘fightback for credibility in the aid sector’ and to put ‘beneficiaries of aid first’. Her ambition is for the British public to be ‘proud’ of international aid. New ‘tough and exacting’ safeguarding standards and an Inquiry are also expected, which make it clear that organisations that don’t comply ‘should not apply for new funding’.
The aid NGO power abuse scandal risks everybody losing: the Government again come under pressure to scrap the 0.7% target, public trust in and support for NGOs ebbs away, and – most important of all – the standard of support for disadvantaged people overseas ends up slipping as morale and funding stalls.

Seventy percent of those who support keeping the 0.7% GNI for international aid believe it is the UK’s duty to support other countries – so, if not through the international development budget, then how? Britain has been a country that wades in to ameliorate the suffering of those beyond our borders, particularly in humanitarian crises. Despite the recent news that the Chancellor has a bit more leeway on the public finances, the Government faces pressure to stamp on the NGO abuse issue quickly or risk reigniting debate over an issue which would prove problematic were they to succumb.

The views expressed above do not necessarily reflect the view of ComRes.