In January, the following news stories all ran in British newspapers:
- Britain’s foreign aid budget is indefensible – The Times
- Bloated UK aid budget will be funnelled into projects promoting Britain’s interests – Daily Mail
- Foreign aid farce revealed – only six countries send as much money overseas as UK – Express
- Theresa May urged to cut £12 billion foreign aid budget – The Sun
These stories are fairly common. The Sun and The Times undermine foreign aid with perceived stories such as Fury as £13 billion foreign aid is used to farm coconuts in Carribean and juggling lessons in Africa, or Mosquito nets sent as UK aid used to catch fish. It’s the same approach that was used against the EU for decades: cherry pick a failed project and tar everything with the same brush. Notice how the Sun’s headline starts by telling the reader how to feel about it – fury – and then lumps the whole aid budget in together. Whatever the merits of those two projects, £13 billion was certainly not spent on them.
But you’re never going to get to the actual merits of the projects, because the article won’t tell you. Those juggling lessons? Part of a much bigger programme offered by Babawatoto Centre, which works with vulnerable young people and abused children. Cost to the UK? It’s buried right at the end of the article: £20,128. But then ‘Fury as £20k foreign aid spent on abused children’ isn’t a headline that serves the Sun’s political ends.
The Daily Mail and the Express are more direct, and actively campaign against aid. Both have organised petitions to stop it, the Daily Mail’s in 2016, The Express just last month.
In fact, The Times broke the Oxfam scandal story on February 9th. That very same day Jacob Rees-Mogg delivered The Express petition to Downing Street calling to ‘stop the foreign aid madness’. The handover was covered live by Sky News.
The Oxfam scandal has created a perfect political moment to go after Britain’s aid budget. Here’s a high profile bad example that can be amplified, exaggerated, and extrapolated across the sector in order to justify something that many already wanted to do. Indeed, last week The Times, The Sun and The Telegraph all ran editorials calling for a rethink of Britain’s aid budget. ‘Government must strip Oxfam’s cash after sex abuse scandal – and ditch foreign aid spending target’ says the Sun.
It has taken decades for Britain to deliver on its promises to give 0.7% of GDP in aid. It’s something the government should be proud of, not embarrassed by. It’s also growing in importance as Brexit shuffles depressingly on – if Britain is turning away from the EU, we will need to rely more on every other tool for international engagement.
Yes, sometimes aid is misplaced. Sometimes our agencies fail us. It’s right to be outraged at abuses of power, but as Tim Harford wrote last week, outrage “is easy to manipulate for political ends”. We must resist snap decisions and think carefully about how we react, because in the current mood of anger and incrimination, it looks like we’re about to do something rather perverse. If Haiti had received more assistance before the earthquake, and if disaster relief aid was more readily available after it, perhaps fewer young women would have been forced to turn to prostitution. Responding to their abuse by cutting aid budgets makes no sense at all.
If you value Britain’s aid and the good it does in the world, now would be a good time to speak up and say so. Write to your MP and ask them to defend our aid targets. Use whatever influence you have, because the press barons and the right wing politicians are certainly using theirs.