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The cynical case for aid that even our cynical leaders can’t seem to grasp

A man watches mass cremations in a disused granite quarry repurposed to cremate those who have died from Covid in Bengaluru, India - Credit: Getty Images

There is a strong case for Britain to spend more on international aid, based purely on self interest… yet even that cannot convince the government

Last month saw an announcement that could be UK’s most positive impact on the world in decades – a new vaccine, not to tackle Covid-19, but malaria.

A team from the University of Oxford, alongside colleagues from the USA and Burkina Faso, revealed that an early trial of the drug in children appeared to show it was 77% effective in preventing malaria infections.

It is a development that could save millions of lives and improve countless millions more. In 2019, more than 200 million people caught malaria and of those more than 400,000 – most of them children – died. An effective malaria vaccine could reshape many African nations, changing their family dynamics, their education practices, and rapidly accelerating their growth.

As if all of that wasn’t enough, it was because of their long-running work on a vaccine for malaria that the Oxford researchers were in a prime position to work on a vaccine for Covid-19 – the resulting jab, made in coordination with AstraZeneca, is now injected into millions of arms in the UK and is being manufactured for many more across the planet by the Serum Institute of India.

The lesson of all this should be a clear one: when you’re a nation state, you don’t need to wait for the next life to feel the benefits of enlightened altruism. Funding research or giving essential help to poorer countries and people can pay off in even the most selfish of ways.

Countries are more likely to regard those nations investing in their infrastructure and their services as allies. People who grow up able to make a survivable living are far more likely to become consumers of British goods and services than those who subsist on a pittance. And funding research to help tackle the ailments of the world’s poor can bring surprising benefits to ourselves in a catastrophe.

Even if you’re born without the tiniest impulse of altruism or charity, the malaria vaccine breakthrough shows the benefits of taking a role to help others in the role  – its very existence makes the case.

And so it is grimly unsurprising that the same week in which this extraordinary breakthrough was announced, it was accompanied by headlines demonstrating the devastating real-world effects of a decision by the government to retreat from the world in the hope of a few cheap headlines.

Under the Labour government of 1997 to 2010, the UK became one of the first countries to sign up to a pledge to give at least 0.7% of its GDP as international aid by 2013. The coalition retained the target and actually hit it. That means a promise as a nation to use 70p in every £100 we collectively earn towards aid, and to use that long-term commitment to build expertise and relationships to use it well.

Building in this commitment in percentage rather than cash terms means that it’s always affordable for a government – when the UK’s GDP falls, as it did last year, so too does our aid budget. When in time the UK recovers, the aid budget would recover at the same pace.

Instead, Boris Johnson’s government has hit the aid budget with a huge, additional budget cut, by reducing the commitment from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5% of GDP – an overall effect leaving the aid budget cut by a third in just two years, with far more devastating consequences on individual projects.

UK funding to humanitarian aid in Yemen and Syria will be reduced by more than half, funding towards polio eradication is cut by 95%, bilateral aid to individual countries in Africa will reduce by two-thirds, and funding towards sexual health programmes has been slashed by 85%.

In something of a bitter irony, the UK is also scrapping its funding towards drug treatments from malaria through the Ascend programme, and – inevitably – is cutting research funding for malaria, too.

If rich countries like the UK have been hit hard by coronavirus, global south countries have found themselves hit still harder. Some have been lucky enough to largely escape the virus directly, but are left to contend with a global recession and its knock-on effects. Others have been unluckier still. For the unluckiest, we need look no farther than India.

India was long a target for critics of UK aid. Why would the UK even contemplate giving aid to a country with its own space programme, those critics would ask, in the manner of a poker player laying down a royal flush.

The devastating pictures and messages coming out of India at the moment tell us exactly why. The country has a brutal, nationalist and incompetent government determined to present India as a superpower while doing little to actually improve the lives for its people.

The result is that the country dismantled the little coronavirus capacity it had produced and declared victory against the disease, only to find itself totally unprepared for a devastating second wave this spring.

A country with a huge, largely poor and largely rural population spends less than 2% of its GDP on public healthcare and has crippled infrastructure. The media has reported how cities are running out of oxygen – we don’t even hear about what’s happening when coronavirus reaches India’s villages.

Poor countries with citizens in need often have governments who spend their meagre funds badly – and that’s why there can still be a case for aid for a country with a space programme.

Aid advocates have, though, been terrible at arguing for why the UK should spend money across the world. Too often only one argument is advanced, in a preachy tone that rarely lands well with anyone – it’s the right thing to do, it’s immoral not to do it, and so on.

The issue with that argument is that anyone who might be persuaded by it is already pro-international aid. To continue only making that argument is like fighting against climate change by just mentioning that more polar bears might drown, to the exclusion of all else.

There is a good case that could have been made to this government, and which surely – hopefully – was at least attempted behind closed doors by the major NGOs.

When the government talks about “Global Britain” it clearly doesn’t mean it in terms of free movement of people, or of responsibilities towards refugees – but many ministers in the government are sincere when they say they want to trade beyond Europe. Aid as a precursor to building friendly trade relations might feel cynical to many of us, but it provides a good reason for a government like this one to offer it.

And aid can be pushed as a foreign policy tool. The government is increasingly hawkish towards China, which is building infrastructure – including digital infrastructure – across Africa and East Asia as part of its belt and road initiative. Is that really a good time for the UK to pull out?

Finally, Johnson clearly is staking a lot on COP26, the climate convention the UK is hosting in November. He wants a big win, for countries to make bold new commitments on climate change, and is talking up the event at every opportunity. It’s a shame, then, that he’s just annoyed dozens of the remaining countries the UK hadn’t already annoyed in his two-year premiership.

Johnson’s new aid policy is morally bankrupt, politically stupid, self-defeating and will sabotage his own strategic goals – without costing him a single vote. It is harder to think of a single policy that could better summarise his era in Number 10.

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