When it became clear that the Government was considering a cut to foreign aid, the international development charities made their objections clear. For instance, Oxfam called it a “false economy” that would “mean less money for the poorest communities just when they need it most.”
And yet the cut was made anyway. The hard truth is that it was a political no-brainer. As polling for The Sun shows, the decision has the overwhelming support of the public — with 57% in favour and just 15% against.
I should declare that I’m among the 15% and utterly dismayed by the cut. Nevertheless, I also think that the charities must shoulder part of the blame.
The standard critique of the well-known NGOs is that they’ve become too big for their boots, paying their executives fat salaries while meddling in politics rather than actually helping people.
However, that’s not my problem with them. Big charities should be professional and be able to pay for effective leaders. Furthermore, if it advances their charitable aims, they should be free to speak out and campaign. If we want a vigorous civil society then we need non-governmental organisations of all shapes and sizes — from small-and-local to big-and-global.
Rather, the real problem with the aid charities is how they’ve deployed their fire power. They scored a great victory when they got Parliament to adopt the 0.7% aid target into law; but they neglected a vital constituency — the British people. By failing to embed support for the target in the wider population, they made it easy for politicians to knock it back down (to 0.5% in this case).
How might the charities have done things differently? For a start, by raising more awareness of just how exceptional the UK commitment to 0.7% actually was. Very few other nations, and no other G7 nations, have matched it. Even at 0.5% we’ll still be more generous than the Americans, French or Japanese. And it’s not just the quantity of aid, but also it’s quality. As Sam Bowman explains here, the UK has led the way in learning from past mistakes.
This is something to be proud of — and thus the case for aid should have been patriotic not preachy. However, that would have meant challenging the liberal, Remainery narrative that we’re a bunch of xenophobic, empire-nostalgists. And I’m afraid our prominent NGOs are incapable of any such thing. I don’t want to stereotype the good folk who staff their London offices, but you’re likely to find more Leave voters on the payroll of the New European.
Of course, this is a sector that going to attract idealistic, earnest young graduates. Which is fine, until it comes to necessary business of reaching out to the rest of society — where, clearly, they’ve failed.