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Thanks to all the UK government rhetoric about “leading the world on aid to Syrian refugees” following the House of Commons vote against military intervention, the general topic of foreign aid is once again on the news agenda.

(Aid industry lobbyists of course see the Syrian crisis as an opportunity to argue for an even greater aid spend and as a useful rhetorical weapon in the war against aid critics, skeptics and whistleblowers. And as usual, they and the media tend to elide the difference between humanitarian and development aid.) 

Accordingly the BBC News website called me for a short (300 word) contribution to their “Viewpoints” section. The question they asked was “Should foreign aid be spent at home” and here are my and the other responses. I thought the comments were rather revealing – certainly there seems to be much more skepticism about aid among the general, educated public than among the political class.

My contribution went thus:

The aid industry’s PR machine likes to pretend that aid is a simple, all-or-nothing matter. If you criticise Britain’s huge, mismanaged aid budget then you are arguing against all aid and you clearly don’t care if children die.

The truth is very different. Less than a 10th of Britain’s £12bn aid budget goes into humanitarian or emergency aid – the life-saving stuff you see in brochures – and the Department for International Development (DfID) has problems spending that. Most British aid is actually development aid, often of dubious effectiveness, far too much of which goes to inefficient and wasteful multilateral organizations or gets paid directly into the treasuries of the corrupt or incompetent governments.

For aid lobbyists, aid tends to be about intentions rather than results; about visibly doing something regardless of whether it really helps.

Billions that could be paying for medical operations, nurses, police and other forms of public welfare in the UK are essentially tossed into a void by the one government agency that has not had to become more efficient or make budget cuts.

This shows contempt not just for British taxpayers – who happen to be among the world’s most generous donors to private charity – but also for the purported beneficiaries of UK Aid. 

Britain should of course respond to humanitarian crises in the world, like the waves of Syrians refugees, or natural disasters like the Asian Tsunami. But that response should not just be a matter of boosting the overall aid budget or of handing more money to institutions that we know are likely to steal it, waste it or give it to the wrong people.

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