“How many children will die?” is the question we should be asking on international aid.

Just half a decade after the Coalition enshrined 0.7% of GDP spending to go to international aid into law, the Conservative government looks set to rip it out this week.

Given Johnson’s penchant for populism and his Chancellor’s desire to get public spending back to pre-Covid levels, it is not surprising to see international aid attacked so passionately and so disproportionately. ‘Foreign aid’ has long been the whipping body of the right-wing press, Nigel Farage, and the Tax-Payers Alliance.

Much like the European Union and freedom of movement, international aid has gone largely undefended. Whilst we see obvious merit in funding climate change mitigation projects in Eritrea, vaccinations programmes in Malawi, or disaster relief in Pakistan, it is not something we have dedicated much time and energy to raising awareness of or even publicly defending.

Predictably therefore, we have fallen into the same camps as the EU referendum campaign:

  • There are those who say we shouldn’t be sending money overseas under any circumstances – aidsceptics, for want of a term.
  • There are those, including me, who see an inherent good in helping to bring more people out of extreme poverty, protecting refugees across the world, and in educating millions of young girls in nations where without this support it just wouldn’t be possible.
  • Then there are the ones in the middle, who might donate to Comic Relief but don’t understand why we should be spending money in India when they’re sending people into space. It is those who we need to convince.

Critics of the Stronger IN campaign noted the lack of emotion, that with its talk of pounds and pennies and abstract concepts of peace and cooperation it never hit people where they feel it the most.

With that in mind, I suggest we ask this government repeatedly when this reaches the House, when they post on social media, and when they come calling at election time. “How many children will die?” It’s a simple, effective, but very real question that needs answering. I invite all those who propose we cut international aid during a global pandemic and a climate emergency to answer it. How many children will die and why are you okay with that?

Liberal Democrats are looking for a cause and a purpose at the moment. This not only speaks to our values, it gives us an issue where we can step out of Starmer’s shadow and give the thousands of members and voters who backed us for the first time over Remain a signal that we are worth staying for.

Its time we challenge the Tories’ populism and take the lead in a national conversation of why we need to invest in international aid.

* James Cox is a teacher in Oxfordshire, an Executive member of Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary exec member and has a Master’s degree in Public Policy.

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  • Establishing the Overseas Aid target at 0.7% was one of the few Lib Dem triumphs in the Coalition years. It was achieved by my old Borders MP friend, Michael Moore. To maintain it was also part of the 2019 Tory Manifesto….. though we know how much currency to put on a Johnson pledge.

    James Cox is right to champion the 0.7% figure, but I would caution him not to push the line, ” it gives us an issue where we can step out of Starmer’s shadow and give the thousands of members and voters who backed us for the first time over Remain a signal that we are worth staying for”.

    To achieve a good outcome Lib Dems need to work with Sir Keir not to criticise him or distance themselves from him. This is what he said in the Commons five days ago :

    “Labour leader Keir Starmer asked how the additional defence spending would be paid for and called on Mr Johnson to honour the Conservatives’ “very clear” manifesto pledge on overseas aid. He must know that if he breaks it, that will not only undermine public trust, but hugely weaken us on the global stage,” added Sir Keir”.

    The Financial Times 19 Nov, 2020.

  • Matt (Bristol) 24th Nov '20 - 3:26pm

    But James, whilst there is a truth there, ‘how many children will die?’ is itself a populist simplification — unless the money allocated for international aid is genuinely spent on international aid and not ‘soft diplomacy’ to serve the current Tory definition of the national interest, children could still die unless without transparency and scrutiny.

    Making budgetary decisions a binary question of ‘spend this money or you’re EVIL!’ enables the Johnson government (with some forethought) to tick a box, say ‘we spent the money, we’re not evil, shut up’ and move on without clarification on HOW they are spending the money.

    ‘How many children will die?’ will grab the headlines. But once the killer quote is out in the open, what’s your follow-up?

  • The author is right to say that this issue speaks to liberal values and the Lib Dem’s have led the way with a strong contribution from Layla Moran.

    Labour have had little to say about this, which comes on the back of their failure to oppose the spy bill. So there is still a lot of relevance and clear ground for the Lib Dem’s to occupy.

  • James Cox is right to call for a challenging comment from us that will cut through emotionally even if it is simplistic. We are so rarely in the news we have to start appealing to the majority of people who do not follow detailed analyses and arguments. People need to be reminded we exist and what our values are.

  • Nonconformistradical 25th Nov '20 - 2:58pm

    @Ian Sanderson
    Yes but…..
    How much of this economic migration could be avoided/mitigated if it was possible for most of these people to earn an adequate income in their own countries? Doing useful things in their own countries?

    It seems to me that the desire in developed nations for cheap goods has resulted in serious exploitation of people in less developed countries – by gargantuan multinationals, paying workers a pittance – with said workers all too often having to work in conditions which wouldn’t be allowed in developed countries. And with the profits being taken out of the less developed countries – the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

    So poor people from undeveloped countries become economic migrants – just trying to better themselves – and why not?

    Mightn’t it be better if people in developed countries paid rather more than they might pay now to a small/medium sized enterprise in a less developed country for goods produced in better conditions and with the workforce earning sufficient to at least put food on the table and roof over head? And with the profits spent in the local economy rather than being taken away by gargantuan multinationals?

  • John Marriott 25th Nov '20 - 6:31pm

    Now I have nothing against helping people to help themselves. For years my wife and I used to donate about £15 per month to sponsor a little girl in Kerala. We stopped when we heard about India’s space programme.

    I know that many might find our attitude to be callous. However, I would bet that a good number of our fellow citizens would agree. Our ‘charity’ is largely now directed towards poverty in the U.K., of which there is plenty. Whilst not wishing to see overseas aid cut completely, as some advocate, I could live with a small temporary reduction.

  • Nonconformistradical 25th Nov '20 - 8:30pm

    @John Marriott
    “I could live with a small temporary reduction.”
    But can those overseas people who needed it live with such a reduction?

    Perhaps closing some tax loopholes exploited by the wealthy might help to plug the gap.. No I’m not holding my breath

  • John Marriott 25th Nov '20 - 8:46pm

    They may have to. In any case, whatever you or I may say, given the Tory majority it will happen, won’t it? As for tax loopholes exploited by the wealthy, there are some very wealthy people in India, for example. As they say, charity begins at home.

  • For anyone who lacks compassion for those living at a level of poverty unknown in UK, I could argue that maintaining overseas aid is also in the UK’s long term interests. It strengthens weak economies, builds international markets, develops trade and diplomatic bonds, lowers economic migration and reduces the spread of disease. These would not be top of my list of reasons to keep aid at 0.7%, but they may be persuasive arguments for some.

  • Daniel Walker 26th Nov '20 - 8:58am

    @John Marriott “I could live with a small temporary reduction.

    But one of the features of specifying the amount as a percentage of GNI is that in an economic downturn, it automatically produces a temporary reduction, surely?

  • John Marriott 26th Nov '20 - 10:24am

    @Daniel Walker
    I was never much cop at Maths. I was what they used to call a ‘linguist’! It’s the optics surely. I do, however, understand that 1% of not very much is not very much. I also understand that there are two factors to the spread of COVID, for example, first of all how dense the population is and secondly how dense the population is. Surely both reasons are why they feel the need to cut the overseas aid budget at the moment.

  • Daniel Walker 26th Nov '20 - 10:39am

    @John Marriott “Surely both reasons are why they feel the need to cut the overseas aid budget at the moment.

    They feel the need because it plays very well with their supporters, not because it’s a good idea – as Mary Reid points out above, there’s plenty of good enlightened-self-interest reasons as well as compassion and a desire for global social justice in the abstract for a decent overseas aid budget.

    But as you say, none of those matter to this lot.

    (also, w.r.t. India’s space programme, we stopped giving direct aid to India years ago – although we do aid technical programs there)

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