Wed 16th Apr 2014 | Last updated: Tue 15th Apr 2014 at 16:46pm

Facebook Logo Twitter Logo RSS Logo
Hot Topics

Comment & Blogs

When can we have a debate about the ethics of overseas aid?

Cuts to overseas aid would make headlines, but will no one challenge Westminster’s cosy consenus

By on Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Houses of Parliament (Photo: PA)

The Houses of Parliament (Photo: PA)

The Times had an arresting headline this morning – you can see it here – “Fox tells PM: Stop wasting billions on overseas aid”. However, there was nothing in the article or the minister’s leaked letter to the Prime Minister that supported the headline. In fact Dr Fox’s position is better conveyed by the following anodyne quote from his spokesman: “The defence secretary fully supports the principle of a 0.7% target on international aid. The issue is simply how best to reflect this in law.” The full, rather boring story, is found hereand it seems to be about Cabinet infighting, and not really about overseas aid at all.

If Dr Fox had come out and asked why the overseas aid budget should be spared cuts, unlike, let us say, education, or pointed out that not everyone thinks overseas aid is a good idea – well, that would have been news. But instead we have a wall of complacent cross-party agreement on this matter. Witness this statement from Harriet Harman:
Britain’s overseas aid saves lives in the developing world, but it is also in our national interest to tackle the underdevelopment which can cause conflict.

This Tory manifesto promise [to increase aid spending to 0.7% of national income by 2013] has been reiterated by the prime minister at international forums. He must show that Britain keeps its word.

The way to show they are not going to break this manifesto commitment is to bring in the promised legislation now. The government must keep the promise.

So, both sides in the House of Commons seems to be of the opinion that the manifesto pledge to increase overseas aid must be enshrined in law, making it unique among government spending priorities. 0.7% may not sound like very much, but it is worth keeping the figures in mind. The Daily Telegraph spells it out for us: “Overall aid spending will rise from £7.8billion this year to £11.5 billion, a 34 per cent real–terms increase.”

Perhaps £11.5 billion is not much in government terms, but where will all this money go? Harriet Harman asserts – without a shred of proof – that “aid saves lives”. There are plenty who do not agree, as I have pointed out before now.

When is this cosy Westminister consensus going to end? When are we going to be allowed to have a proper debate about the ethics of overseas aid?

  • Seangough

     31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.   34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
       37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
       40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
       41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
       44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
       45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
       46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.   34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’   37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’   40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’   41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’   44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’   45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’   46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

  • http://umblepie-northernterritory.blogspot.com/ Brian Crowe

    Much of this aid goes to the promotion of abortion and contraception in so-called third world countries, through the auspices of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF).  The ‘arrangement’ with IPPF was set up by the previous government, with  Harriet Harman MP,  being much involved. David Cameron, shortly after he became Prime Minister, rashly promised a donation of £400 million over the next two years. IPPF is a commercial organisation with ‘charitable’ status, who have their own commercial arm supplying condoms!  IPPF have abortion clinics in the USA, and appear to have fallen seriously foul of the law on many issues (see Lifesite News website) One of the original founders of IPPF was Margaret Stanger – a prominent member of the Eugenics lobby in the USA and England in the 1930/40′s.

  • Anonymous

    That’s true, but the fact reamins that much of the aid spent goes to people like the “untouchables” in India and the other massively poor people in countries that either will not or cannot help them. The tragedy is that we send the aid to the governments or to ”charities” such as IPFF. Even so this is no excuse to stop aid; people need this money and we cannot punish them for the sins of their government in spending that money on the wrong things; we have to both provide aid and confront the sinful governments over their institutional murder in their abortion clinics. The aid must still be sent, but it must be sent to people who truly need it and not to fund the genocide of abortion in these countries.

  • Anonymous

    I still don’t ‘get’ your argument Father,
    Aid is being misappropriated – ergo aid is wrong?

    Cosy Westminster consensus? Please tell us what you mean!
    Are you saying International Aid is wrong in itself? Or wrong because of its reckless administration? Or wrong because of the ideology behind the aid which in some instances promotes the culture of death? Is it wrong because it allows a furtherance of the inherent disordered overseas set-up – i.e. supporting the thieves and scoundrels, the slavemasters and local ‘mafia-like’ thugs? Thus artificially contuing a socio-cultural and economic oppression which would collapse without it?

    I don’t understand what you’re saying..and I really am trying to.

  • Anonymous

    I’m sorry, a priest arguing against overseas aid? This is riduculous.

    There may be legitamate political and ecconomic reasons to restrict aid – we can have those debates. But in terms of morals there is no discussion to be had. Aid saves thousands of lives, educates thousands of children and saves people from diesease.

    To push this issue much further is to question your Credibility as a Christian, Father.

  • Anonymous

    ‘Much’  - Please can you quantify this for the sake of your argument?
    ‘so-called third world’ – which countries are we giving to that don’t deserve this status?

    Brian condoms save lives, and that’s why most thinking Christians agree that to provide them is the most moral option. Christian Aid and Cafod have for years based their AIDs policy around the ABC solution  - Abstance, Be faithful if you can’t, and use a Condom if you can’t do that. 

    It has been proven time and again to be the best solution to save lives. I don’t know about you but I put more value on a human being staying ALIVE over questioning the morality of condoms.

    Brian, one last thing – if you want to get your information from somewhere, why not use crediable source? Life Site News – I think you can do better then that. That would be like us believing an atheist quoting from richarddawkins.net. 

  • Anonymous

    The moral case is obvious. Mathew 25:31 shows that very well, thank you.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    The moral case for charity is indeed obvious. But charity and government to government aid are rather different in both theory and practice. 

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    There is a growing body of evidence, properly researched evidence too, that points to the exact opposite to what you assert above; in other words aid does harm to those it is most designed to help. I would cite the work of Professor Philip Booth. He is particualry good on the way charity and aid are not to be confused. 

  • Anonymous

    I am not talking in terms of bodies of evidence and neither were you: (quote):
    ‘When are we going to be allowed to have a proper debate about the ETHICS of overseas aid?’

    You decided to write about the ETHICS of overseas aid, and NOT its effectiveness. It is only in replying to me that you bring this up, you had ample column inches to dedicate to that subject if you had wanted.

    As for Philip Booth – call me cynical, doesn’t every right-wing economist that argues for smaller government want to reduce spending – on ALL budgets; be that overseas-aid, health, policing, schools?

    You make the point that whilst is Liam Fox defending overseas aid – that the money could be going to education? But, if you were following Philip Booth’s advice advice then the budget of education would be cut also!

  • Anonymous

    Mathew 25 requires requires us to help ‘the least of these’, and we are held accountable by how we treat treat them. To propose that private charity is the solution to the problems of Mathew 25, is not a solution – it is a hope.

    Jesus did not say ‘I was hungry and I hoped you would feed me.’ Or, ‘I was hungry and you called upon people to feed me’

    As we are in the position where our taxes are collectively paying for overseas aid; therefore we are collectively responsible for the effects of it being withdrawn, or reduced.

    The hope that private charity will simply fill the gap is not only irresponsible – it is unproven; and that is not good enough. As Pope John Paul II expressed in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, vague hopes are not good enough: plans to help to poor must be concrete:

    ‘The motivating concern for the poor–who are, in the very meaningful term, “the Lord’s poor”…–must be translated at all levels into concrete actions’

  • W Oddie

    He’s not arguing against aid: he’s arguing against third world dictators spending it (and salting away a good bit of it in Offshire accounts): isn’t he?

  • W Oddie

    Selfrighteous cant isn’t a substitute for rational argument.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1175170121 Carrie Spurgeon
  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    When the treatment is obviously killing the patient, then it is time to stop the treatment and think of something else to do. It would indeed be unethical to continue the treatment regardless of the effect it is having.

    Secondly, the precept of charity is clear enough, but foreign aid is not motivated by charity, but by political considerations. The PM wishes to detoxify the Conservative brand, to reposition his party, ergo he makes this promise re aid. He even wants to enshrine it in law, giving lawyers a rich future seam to mine.  HMG may also wish to buy influence in the developing world, a slim hope given the way China is now splashing the cash. This political posturing has little to do with the needs of ordinary people on the streets of Nairobi, or in the neglected rural areas of Kenya.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Actually, I would like to see DFID closed down…. and all government to government aid cease forthwith, particularly military aid. I do want to see the sort of work done by religious orders in places like Kibera continue. Oddly while DFID gets all the headlines, you hardly ever read about the good wortk done by let us say the Medical Missionaries of Mary, do you? or the Guadalupe Missionaries?

  • Anonymous

    If that’s what he had wanted to argue he should have made that clear. I can’t find reference to it in the article. Adding it afterwards – in response to me, feels like he is trying to escape from what he wrote in the first place. 

  • Anonymous

     You’re still not saying what you want to say Father – it’s highly confusing….

  • Anonymous

    It is probably right that a significant proportion of government to government aid is misspent. However, I think the reason this post has provoked so much disagreement is that it does not provide enough context. “Corrupt dictatorships” are not the only reason for poverty in the developing world – the historical legacies of colonialism and highly unequal power structures within the global economy are also responsible.
    This being so, it is our responsibility to help people in poor countries, but we should do this in ways that are effective. Rather than advocating the abolition of DFID, wouldn’t it be better to argue that it should redirect its aid to projects “on the ground”. More importantly, there need to be changes in international trade rules and we should stop imposing “structural adjustment programmes” on poor countries.

  • Anonymous

    Good quotation from Professor Peter Bauer of the London School of Economics who once described foreign aid as “a transfer of money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.”  (This is quoted in Daily Telegraph Letters today, 19th May).
    This sums up pretty accurately what I see as the essence of Father Lucie-Smith’s blog and what needs to be sorted out by Cameron, Clegg and Co. 

  • Anonymous

     Alexander Lucie-Smith:

    (quote) ‘I would like to see DFID closed down…. and all government to government aid cease forthwith’

    I would like to add some figures to clarify what this would mean in terms of its effects. Britons, through private donations for overseas development (2005 figure) was just over 1 Billion. (This is because most British charity goes to UK charities, i.e. Cancer Research, Help for Hero’s)

    Inflation since 2005 may have pushed this up since then, but equally we are amidst a recession, so I think that figure could be considered on representative.

    This means destroy government aid, and only rely on private charity, would be to reduce overall foreign aid coming from this country by over 85%, and based on the new rise announced by over 90%. You can make arguments about the political targeting of aid; or the possibility of some of the money being siphoned away to dictators, but clearly a cut of this magnitude would be indefensible.

    My figures are from Vox’s 2009 report of foreign aid, and government aid. But I have come across similar figures elsewhere.
    http://tinyurl.com/65dg7z5 

    To destroy government aid, now at least, borders on the insane – one you have actually taken the figures into account. To reform, or to de-politicize the giving – yes, but to scrap it altogether would be a crime.

    After reviewing my analysis, are you willing to concede that you got this one wrong father? 

  • Anonymous

    It certainly is.

  • Anonymous

    Well its a good thing that I managed to get a rational argument in there too.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    No.
    Sure, DFID spends lots of cash – but where does that money go? Very little of it - if any at all – helps poor people in Africa or elsewhere. I have lived Africa, and I have never ever met anyone who benefitted in any way from government to government aid, that is, aid that could only be delivered by such means. Such aid is usually harmful. To close down DFID would cause a huge ruckus in London where may people in the aid industry would lose their jobs; but it would not cause even a ripple in Kibera.
    And another point. Government to government aid is not charitable, as it is given without the consent of the giver, in this case the taxpayer. Charity is voluntary.
    I do not see why, Paulsays, you so wish to champion the DFID model of developement. It does not work. Trust Dambisa Moyo is you don’t believe me.

  • Anonymous

    I’m sorry but considering that we have a relatively progressive tax system, I don’t see how the poorest here are getting short changed. Who pays more tax, as a proportion and overall, the rich or the poor?

  • Anonymous

     Pro rata, I’ve been told that the POOR pay more tax than the rich in this country. As a percentage of their income, the poor pay a disproportionately larger amount in tax.

  • Anonymous

    You are right about colonialism being largely to blame but there will be another time to have that debate; when those living hand-to-mouth in the third world are fed and provided for by a real government with their concerns at heart. Now would be a good time to revitalise and restart the missionary work in Africa and elsewhere so that those living there may know Christ’s word in some way and will also know that there are Christians in other parts of the world who do care and are doing something for them. Meanwhile the changes on trade rules you advocate are rather straightforward: less coming to the developed world which is now using too much with too little concern for the morrow (and providing for this greed by corrupt banking and politics, comercialised sex and battery farming) and more of that money going to the third world countries for whom a small part of the meals we carelessly throw out every day is a lifetime dream. In other word a worldwide reform on attitudes to wealth, considerations for each other and a real look at what our priorities are. I rather doubt that secular capitalism will provide an answer anytime soon.

  • Anonymous

    In ‘Deus Caritas Est’ (28.a), Pope Benedict said, “Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics. Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life: its origin and its goal are found in justice, which by its very nature has to do with ethics.” 

    As a Catholic priest who has now spent many years working with “the poorest of the poor” in a very violent developing country which does *not* benefit significantly from the UK’s overseas aid programme, I therefore heartily applaud Fr Lucie-Smith’s call for a debate about the *ethics* of governmental overseas aid.

    It is high time that Westminster’s cosy consensus on this issue was challenged, and that it should be recognised that it is perfectly legitimate – and, indeed, necessary – for committed Christians to be prominent amongst the challengers on several counts:

    1. There is not universal agreement – even amongst Christians – that it is really *ethical* for national governments to have an overseas aid – as opposed to a disasters relief – budget at all. Why should it be assumed to be a matter beyond debate that it is ethically correct  for politicians be able to spend other people’s money in this way – especially when it has long been evident that so much of it is wasted through bureaucracy or misappropriated through corruption?

    2. There is need for a debate about the *ethics* of allowing states and politicians to invest their foreign aid budgets in humanitarian trappings whilst using them as tools of their foreign and commercial policy. It may be in the UK’s strategic interest to prop up this or that foreign regime; or it may be to the UK’s economic advantage to sweeten diplomatic relationships with countries with which we hope to do business, but the ethics of using foreign aid as a means to attain these objectives ought certainly to be open to question.

    3. I do not see why politicians should be allowed to decide – without an open debate – which countries ought to benefit from overseas aid. For example, at present India – which has its own nuclear weapons, space programme, and overseas aid budget – continues to receive substantial support from the UK’s overseas aid budget, whereas the developing country in which I live – which cannot afford any of those items – does not. Why should the *ethical* justification for this not be open to question? 

    4. There ought to be an open debate about the ethical criteria used to establish the kinds of programmes that are eligible for support from governmental overseas aid. Many UK tax-payers have very strong *ethical* objections – for all sorts of different reasons – to the nature of some of the programmes that currently benefit from our overseas aid budget. The *ethics* of obliging them to do this ought also to be open to question. Of course, one may take the view that people have no inherent right to private property or to retain the fruits of their labours to use as they please within the law: but unless one holds that view – which is certainly open to challenge – then every time the State uses its powers of taxation not only to deprive people of their money, but to oblige them to contribute to the financing of programmes to which they have strong *ethical* objections, the  *ethical* grounds for this action need to be clearly and openly established in public debate.

    5. As a Christian, I do not believe that intervention by the State is in any way inherently superior – on *ethical * grounds – to intervention by charitable bodies and individuals. On the contrary, to quote Pope Benedict again,  (‘Deus Caritas Est’ 28:b): “We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need.” The principle of subsidiarity requires intervention at a “higher” level to be justified in terms of the effectiveness of its outcome in favour of its intended beneficiaries. And the fact that the intended beneficiaries of much governmental overseas aid are deprived of such a high proportion of it because of waste and corruption is sufficient evidence of the urgent need for a debate about the *ethics* of channelling aid overseas through governmental – rather than charitable – programmes. The prime consideration – as a matter of justice – in such a debate must be to determine what means of channelling funds are, in specific circumstances, most effective for their intended beneficiaries.

    6. Of course, the point could be made that a great deal of governmental overseas aid is already channelled through – and to – non-governmental organisations. Some of these usually do an excellent job: but others do not. However, I would argue that there ought also to be a debate about the *ethics* of allowing some of these NGOs to represent themselves – and to be treated – as ordinary charities. Some of them are so big, so bureaucratic, so wasteful, so politically-correct and so heavily reliant on funds provided by the state that they have much more in common – in their mindset, their terminology and their procedures – with governmental agencies than with “traditional” charities financed exclusively by donations from the public. I therefore believe – on *ethical* grounds – that there ought to be a public debate about creating a clear legal distinction between NGOs and charities; about restricting the right of NGOs to solicit donations directly from the public; and about establishing an upper limit for the proportion of its income that a charity is allowed to obtain from the state before it is required to convert itself into an NGO.

    7. There is no doubt that the combination of the recession and the government’s efforts to control its deficit are leaving most people in the UK with less money not their pockets than they had before. The competition between conventional charities for donations from the public is therefore keener than ever. British charities that work overseas are also suffering from the continued weakness of the pound. There is a danger that the very substantial size of the overseas aid budget may make this situation even worse if members of the public start to feel that they have done their bit for overseas aid by paying their taxes, and therefore cut back on their donations to charities that operate abroad.  In these circumstances the *ethics* of maintaining the overseas aid budget at its present level – let alone of increasing it still further – may also be in need of serious debate.

    As a priest who works with “the poorest of the poor”, I want to be able to be able to provide more and better help for them. But at least in my part of the developing world, the UK government’s present overseas aid programme is of no help whatever. Here, it is probably claiming lives rather than saving them, because it is making it even more difficult for the charity for which I work to raise the funds on which the survival and well-being of our beneficiaries depend. We are having to cut back and cut back both on the number of people whom we help, and on the range and quality of the services we provide for them: and as we do so, I fear that the body count will continue to increase.

    I therefore believe that the present cosy consensus at Westminster is extremely unhealthy and damaging, and that it urgently needs to be challenged – by Christians, amongst others – on *ethical* grounds.

  • Anonymous

    As a proportion of their income, I couldn’t see that making sense, unless they were dodging tax. As a proportion of wealth – then perhaps.

    However, your quote does not talk about percentages of income – it talks about simply a ‘transfer of money’ of which regardless of the outcome of our discussion, will always be more in total from the rich than the poor.

  • Anonymous

    As a proportion of their income, I couldn’t see that making sense, unless they were dodging tax. As a proportion of wealth – then perhaps.

    However, your quote does not talk about percentages of income – it talks about simply a ‘transfer of money’ of which regardless of the outcome of our discussion, will always be more in total from the rich than the poor.

  • Dcruz

    Christian aid organisation should continue their aid to poor countries specially christians as no other religions specially the muslim faith who give no help to  christians in need. 

  • Anonymous

    I champion no model – I just object to the fact that you want to remove aid that clearly in some places is doing good work. You offer no alternative – but private charitable giving – which unfortunately does not generate anywhere near the amounts that can be generated through taxation.

    Why does your article not talk about reform; or a new government organisation; or a private scheme that would bring in similar amounts to what is being spent? 
    Which is more important to you the definition of charity requiring explicit consent – or children being protected from disease, hunger and death? You say you have been in Africa and seen how bad it is – then why are you not pressing for programs to help this – but instead write an article to ridicule the idea of collective aid giving.