The UK government’s U-turn over changes in support to people with disabilities last week leaves a gap of over £4bn in fiscal plans for the current parliament. Some commentators (links) have taken this opportunity to call for this to be plugged, or partly plugged, by reducing the overseas development aid (ODA) budget, which stands at about £12bn this year, and is set to rise annually in line with GDP growth.
International Alert receives some of these funds, which we use to help build peace in more than 25 countries and territories. Nevertheless, we have in the past questioned the need to fix the UK’s ODA budget at a somewhat arbitrary 0.7% of GDP, feeling that it would surely make more sense to base the budget on achieving particular policy goals, than on a rather arbitrary percentage whose origins are somewhat lost in the mists of time.
But now is not the time to raid the aid budget to balance the books. The terrorist attacks in Belgium and Turkey this week are a sharp reminder that we live in a world simultaneously connected and unsettled. Indeed, the two phenomena are related, both for good and for ill.
For good, because development progress (i.e. change) is by nature unsettling and is enabled by connections – travel, the exchange of knowledge and ideas, mutual support and learning, trade, etc.; and an unsettled status quo often creates opportunities for good changes (development) to happen.
For ill, because people’s ability to travel to other parts of the world and connect with others can be unsettling to the status quo and sometimes make life more risky for them and others; and an unsettled world drives some people to travel and create disruption elsewhere – whether intentionally or not.
The current ‘wave’ of refugees into Europe, linked as it is to war and international terrorism, is one obvious example of the latter. If one adds in the impacts of climate change – whose impacts will be felt by all nations, who therefore share an interest in doing something about it – it makes to recognise that we are living in an era when, perhaps more than ever before, it is possible to speak in terms of common or shared security (and common or shared insecurity), rather than only narrowly of national security.
So if the UK is – as a P5+1 member, historically a trading nation and the fifth largest national economy – a significant player in this unsettled and connected world, it makes sense to apply a portion of the government’s budget to reducing the risks the world faces in the next few years: the common or shared risks. If done in the right way, this has an impact not only on people’s wellbeing and security in the most obviously unsettled parts of the world, but on the wellbeing and security of UK citizens too.
So rather than call for the UK’s ODA to be reduced to plug the apparent fiscal hole in the budget approved by parliament this week, perhaps those who want to place the UK’s interests first should instead call for ODA to be used to help make the world a safer place – and a safer place for all, including British citizens. The UK’s aid strategy, released at the end of last year, already recognises this, with its headline focus on building peace and prosperity, reducing poverty, promoting resilience in the face of natural and political disasters, and responding to humanitarian crises when local resilience is insufficient.
While the UK alone is not responsible for fixing the world’s ills – and nor could it – £12bn per year or about 1.5% of government spending doesn't seem too high a price set against the scale of the challenge, and certainly not if it helps keep people safe in fragile and conflict-prone countries and in the UK too.
As Cicero said, the safety of the people is the highest law. But safety is not just provided by people in uniform, it's provided by friends, family and neighbours looking out for one another in prosperous and harmonious communities; by all people – especially young people – feeling they are part of that community with all the political, economic and social opportunities and duties which that entails.
These are some of the outcomes ODA helps achieve, by improving livelihoods, infrastructure and governance in conflict-prone and conflict-affected countries and regions. By thus contributing to stability far away in a connected and unsettled world, British ODA does have a domestic impact too.