7 January 2020

South West London Humanists: Discussion on Overseas Aid

I like to go to the South West London Humanists monthly meetings because the debates there are interesting and cover an unusual range of topics.

This month the topic was "Why spend so much on overseas aid?" and we were very lucky to have the discussion led by Matthew Rycroft CBE, Permanent Secretary at the Department for International Development, and former British Permanent Representative to the UN.

Matthew Rycroft started his talk with the very good news that the number of people in extreme poverty had halved in the last ten years. But that still meant that 10% of people, that is 700,000 persons, are living in extreme poverty today.

asking us three multiple choice questions on the improvements made in recent years on things like girls' education. In all three cases the most positive answer was the correct one and all three times few, or very few, of us knew that.

The point here is that one of the reasons that Overseas Aid is criticised is that its success is not generally known.

While the picture was positive overall not all countries had made the same progress in all areas and, in particular, progress in sub-Saharan Africa has been lagging.

Matthew then gave us more details of the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals which he explained could be summarised as People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace and Partnership.

Having explained what Overseas Aid is for, how it is delivered and what it has achieved, Matthew then opened the floor to questions which led to an interesting discussions. What follows are my views of what various people said.

Corruption is in the eye of the beholder and there is a big difference between government officials siphoning large amounts out of aid projects and poor people having to pay other poor people to get simple things done, like get an appointment with a doctor.

There were various questions suggesting that aid recipient should behave as we tell them and not as we do, e.g. introduce population controls or divert spending from other areas (space programmes were mentioned but are not relevant; India and China do not get any aid from DfID). I think that is a modern form of imperialism, we know what is best for you, and said so. My passion was noted.

The spending of 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI )is an historical number with no hard science behind it, e.g. it is not the right answer but it is a good one. It may have come from a starting point of 1% with the other 0.3% meant to come from other sectors, notably charities, within the donating countries.

That 0.7% equates to circa £14bn for the UK. To compare, our defence spending target set by NATO is 2% of GDP (a slightly smaller number) which makes that almost three times as big.

Several countries match or exceed that target headed by Sweden who give 1.4%. Given the success story we heard earlier I think that this is clearly money well spend and I would rather the UK was planning to increase the percentage donated rather than spending effort trying to justify what is already spent.

It was a very interesting discussion on an important subject and Matthew Rycroft was a very able and knowledgeable speaker.

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