Yemisi Izuora/Agency Report
UK charities have urged Theresa May to ensure that UK aid remains focused on poverty reduction after she pledged that aid money would serve the national interest, promoting British business and protecting national security.
In a speech in Cape Town while on an official visit to South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria Mrs May said she would continue the commitment, enshrined in UK law in 2015, to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income on aid – or “development assistance”.
She said she was “immensely proud” of the UK’s role in helping the world’s poor, citing the development of the Ebola vaccine currently being used in an outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo as an example of the success of foreign aid.
She said the UK would remain a “global champion for aid spending, humanitarian relief and international development”.
She added: “But I am also unashamed about the need to ensure that our aid programme works for the UK. So today I am committing that our development spending will not only combat extreme poverty but at the same time tackle global challenges and support our own national interest. This will ensure that our investment in aid benefits all, and is fully aligned with our wider national security priorities.”
She said the UK would help fast-growing “frontier” markets like Côte D’Ivoire and Senegal and create opportunities for investors, including British companies.
Since the the publication of the UK aid strategy by then prime minister David Cameron in 2015, the government has sought to change the debate on UK aid, with more focus on the national interest.
This follows the long held American approach in which international development funds are framed as supporting US interests and health security.
“USAID’s work advances U.S. national security and economic prosperity, demonstrates American generosity, and promotes a path to recipient self-reliance and resilience,” says its website.
“When you’re spending aid money you have to put the poorest first. Aid has to be poverty focused
”Lauriann Robinson, One Campaign
But UK charities – much of whose business model relies on people giving selflessly rather than strategically – have said that the UK government should ensure that poverty reduction remains a key goal of foreign aid.
A spokesperson for charity Save the Children said: “Any new approach to aid spending must be guided by two key tests: a) ensuring it supports local businesses, and builds local jobs and institutions and b) ensuring it does not divert aid spending away from delivering for the world’s most vulnerable people.”
Lauriann Robinson, head of UK advocacy at the One Campaign, welcomed Mrs May’s statement that “foreign aid works”.
But she added: “When you’re spending aid money you have to put the poorest first. Aid has to be poverty focused.”
She added that the public is less swayed on discussions of aid in the national interest than politicians.
“The national interest argument is popular among politicians but for the public it’s the moral case they are persuaded by,” she said.
Others argue the reverse is true and that large sections of the electorate are happier with development aid when its impact can be linked to the UK national interest – through preventing diseases spreading across borders, slowing migration flows or building infrastructure that allows developing countries to flourish.
Nilima Gulrajani, senior research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, a think tank, said Mrs May’s speech outlined an enlightened self interest approach to foreign aid.
“If you think about aid in the national interest you can have an enlightened, principled approach where you recognise that shared prosperity and shared security are in both the developing world and the UK’s interest.
“Or you can have a narrow self-serving national interest approach where you’re just looking at short-term goals. Mrs May’s speech reiterates a commitment to enlightened self interest which is to be welcomed,” she said.
Richard Hatchett, chief executive of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which gives money to vaccine development, said: “It’s clear that in the case of epidemic diseases the UK’s national interests and the global good are fully aligned.
“Epidemics do not respect borders – we saw that with Ebola and we saw it again last week here in the UK with MERS. Addressing such threats is going to take our collective will and effort,” he said.
Mark Goldring, chief executive of Oxfam GB, said that extreme levels of poverty were increasing in the three countries Mrs May was visiting, despite recent economic growth.
“It is therefore vital that the UK promotes growth that supports the world’s poorest first and foremost, and that UK trade interests don’t inadvertently increase inequality,” he said.