09:10 Wednesday 13th November 2013
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
[A]NDIE HARPER: The Coalition’s commitment to increase aid spending to 0.7% of gross national income has come under fire in some quarters, so this morning I want to know what kind of overseas support you think we should be giving. The Cambridgeshire based writer and business journalist Ross Clark believes that objections to offering aid can seem petty. Ross, good morning to you.
ROSS CLARK: Good morning.
ANDY HARPER: Really good to talk to you. Thank you very much for joining us. Now we often talk about aid on this programme, because lots of listeners feel that we give rather too much to other countries whilst we have our own serious problems at home. Now this presumably is slightly different, isn’t it? Last week a lot of people getting hot under the collar about India. We give so much aid to India, although that is due to stop, and yet they can afford to send rockets to Mars. But surely the Philippine situation is hugely different.
ROSS CLARK: Well I think this is absolutely what aid should be about, this saving lives and rebuilding lives in communities which have been completely overwhelmed by events beyond their control. But the effort that’s going into the Philippines at the moment is by no means representative of the total aid budget. If you add up all the humanitarian aid, earthquakes, extreme weather events and so on, the money that goes into restituting communities which have been damaged in those kinds of events, and also the resilience of building tsunami warning systems and so on, all that humanitarian aid counts for only 8% of the total aid budget. If you add on the medical spending, all the vaccination programmes, which again I’d argue are a very very good use of our money, that’s another 20% of the aid budget. But that leaves three quarters of our £8.7 billion a year aid budget going on other things. And I think some of those things are rather more dubious. To put the £10 million sent to the Philippines crisis into context, we’re spending £26 million a year on forestry projects. We’re spending £2.5 million a year on boosting tourism in certain developing countries. What goes under the general umbrella of aid is often interfering with people’s economies, and I’m not necessarily going to damn all those projects. Some of them may be useful, but they’re not what most people think of as aid when they hear the Government saying they want to increase our aid budget.
ANDIE HARPER: But shouldn’t we as a wealthy country, and I know it’s all relative, shouldn’t we be able to help countries that are far worse off than ourselves. Not just wait for crises to come along, but literally to try and help make life better. I get very annoyed like everybody else when you think India’s sending rockets to Mars so that they can compete with China, and yet such a vast number of people in India live in conditions we can only imagine.
ROSS CLARK: Yes but it’s not necessarily .. the sort of long term chronic aid, it’s not necessarily very helpful to a country. If you take the case of Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world. Well it’s not poor on account of not receiving aid. It’s received billions of pounds in aid over the past forty years. But some of that aid has helped to undermine its industries. Americans have been pouring in cheapo subsidised rice and ships arrive full of textiles which have been recycled from American and European consumers. And what they’ve done is helped undermine two of the industries in which Haiti ought to have a comparative advantage, agriculture and textiles. If you’re shipping in goods free, well it undermines local farmers, it undermines local manufacturers. And I think there’s a huge difference between that, which I call chronic aid, and emergency aid, which is going into the Philippines at the moment.
ANDIE HARPER: So should we then completely rethink our aid policy, and to have this huge chest if you like of money that we can hand over to people when they experience the sort of disasters that the Philippines have experienced? But then we think of the tsunamis and terrible flooding in Bangladesh. Is that what we should be doing really, having a very large kitty, but only allocating it to these sort of events?
ROSS CLARK: Yes, I think we should concentrate our aid budget on this kind of event, and doing it better than we do already. I don’t want to be too critical of what’s going on in the Philippines. A bit too early to judge how effective it will be. But you’ve got to ask, could it have been done forty eight hours earlier. And we should have a real Rolls Royce of an operation when it comes to aid in these forms of crises. And at the same time I think we should trim our aid budget in other areas. The problem is we don’t have a debate on what aid is really about, what it’s for, and what we’re seeking to achieve. We only seem to have a debate on how much we want to spend, and the Government fixates on this target, we’ll spend 0.7% of GNI, Gross National Income, and they don’t tell us what it’s hoping to achieve. And if you treat the spending of money as a good in itself, set yourself a target simply of spending a certain amount of money by a certain date, then of course the quickest way to achieve a target of that nature is to waste money, and that I fear is what is going on in a lot of the aid budget.
ANDIE HARPER: Ross, it’s always good to talk to you. Thanks very much for joining us.