Further thoughts on international aid

I recently wrote a piece on here detailing my thoughts on the need to improve the means by which the United Kingdom delivers aid internationally, and recent events seem to be necessitating a drastic overhaul of our approach to crises.

The United Nations recently announced that we are facing the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War, with more than 20 million people in Central Africa and Yemen facing famine and in dire need of support, but this has received far too little attention. When I saw this announced on the BBC, it received but a passing mention, with significantly more air time being granted to allegations of sexism in the British cycling team.

The general lack of focus on military and international affairs in the news is something a pet peeve of mine, and I will refrain from plunging down that rabbit hole here, but I believe that this presents one of the greatest obstacles to decisive action. When coverage of crises such as these is limited to a few clips in the news, the public reaction will likewise be limited, and without pressure from the public democratic governments will be less inclined to make the effort necessary to avert the crisis.

It was telling that in the latest budget announcement, no mention was made of either military spending or foreign aid; in a time of such international unrest and with such a disaster is unfolding it is surprising that the Chancellor should be so quiet, but amidst the furor over National Insurance there has been effectively no scrutiny of what remained unsaid.

Whilst it is unfortunate that the government has, as yet, made no real statement towards addressing the crisis that is unfolding, it is easy to understand why. The regions that have been affected are in a state of turmoil, and any aid programme would require a significant deployment of resources and personnel that are currently lacking. With the British military as stretched as it is, they would be hard pressed to make a significant contribution alone – such a situation would require the aid of the U.N.

Such action should be a united effort, with 20 million lives at stake across four nations the world as a whole should be taking action, but a crisis of this scale should prompt the U.K. to take a look at the tools at our disposal to act in the event of crisis. As I wrote in my last piece, our International Aid budget is sadly hampered by the bureaucratic strings attached to its utility, and it often fails to translate into meaningful action.

The need for dedicated hospital and relief ships was the central point of the previous article, but there is no need to end the process of reevaluating the aid budget with the purchase of platforms. It would be to Britain’s credit to use the budget to fund the creation of a full-time aid organisation; rather than rely on the badly stretched military and volunteer forces, the creation of a permanent force of aid workers would allow for a rapid and decisive response to crises that emerged. By having an asset such as this Britain would be put at the spearhead of many badly needed relief efforts and be a useful asset to the United Nations.

Such a force would not need to be enormous, if one were to compare – Doctors without Borders currently employ some 30,000 with a budget of approximately £616,000, by contrast the British foreign aid budget for 2015 was £12.2 billion. If some of that money were invested in personnel and equipment, a sizable organisation could be funded whilst still allowing large volumes of capital to be left available for the resources needed to support their operation. Rather than relying on local infrastructure, a well funded force of relief workers could be deployed and ensure that aid could be delivered exactly where it was needed.

Naturally, the creation of such a force would be a lengthy process with high initial outlay for training and equipping, but the long-term advantage it would present in terms of employment, value for money in terms of the aid budget, and diplomatic capital would make such a scheme a huge investment for Britain and afford a better chance to help those in need across the globe.

This effort is unlikely to be made, however, without public pressure. These matters will never be addressed if they are not discussed, and we run the risk of the aid budget remaining as little more than a token lip-service to good will. As an internationally minded country the United Kingdom has an obligation to provide assistance to the most vulnerable, and if the government is sincere in its commitment to providing foreign aid then they should be pressed to ensure that the money devoted to it is used to its fullest potential.

[EDIT] Since writing this piece both the British government and people have pledged a huge sum in support of the crisis in question, to their enormous credit, and coverage of events has intensified. Nonetheless, the means of delivery still appear lacking in this observer’ mind. A structured, centrally supplied and directed body with personnel and vehicular resources would be a major asset and allow the next crisis to be met before it hit breaking point.

[NEW EDIT: OCTOBER 2017] In the past few weeks the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary have been deployed to the Caribbean on an enormous aid mission after several devastating hurricanes. In the immediate aftermath came the scandalous (and scandalously under-reported) realisation that the much-acclaimed Foreign Aid budget would not be allowed to be spent to cover the relief effort. Whilst under current regulations aid may be spent to support states like India (which has an active space programme and nuclear arsenal), the funds were not permitted to be spent on the British Virgin Islands (a British Overseas Territory for whose wellbeing the UK is directly responsible, and which suffered damage to 80% of its buildings in the hurricane). If this revelation is not proof that a drastic re-think in how the Foreign Aid Budget is employed, I am not sure what is.

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