Fraser Nelson

International development’s statist underpinning

International development’s statist underpinning
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Why increase aid to Afghanistan by 40pc when troops are dying from a lack of body armour and helicopters? The pledge to not just protect but vastly increase the aid budget is one which, polls show, leaves the public puzzled.  I was on the Politics Show with Jon Sopel, who was putting to Andrew Mitchell some very sharp questions about all of this. Why build schools in Afghanistan, but cancel them in Britain? Worse, in fact, DFID has a habit of building schools but not finding teachers for them - its ideology states that teaching should be a job for central government, just like it is in Britain. The Afghan government is corrupt and pays a pittance for teachers, who can usually earn more as translators for other foreigners, etc. So the school goes empty, and British money is wasted.

Then there is India. Cameron is on a trade trip there later, asking how Britain can get a slice of the money from this booming country (we tend to export to economies that aren't growing). But while Cameron wants some Indian cash, DFID is sending money the government doesn't have to India in aid projects. There is no logic to this.

Andrew Mitchell is a formidable politician, who has fought his turf so well that he has ended up with all this cash. As James said earlier, he divides it well. He has cut aid to China, from whom the government is borrowing so much money, and he will probably cut aid to India too. But to cut from MoD and give to DFID reflects very strange priorities from a country at war. How strange it will look when the Spending Review is published.

At the root of this, alas, is dodgy thinking: the idea that, to show our national compassion, the British government must confiscate money from people through the tax system and hand it to NGOs. (Needless to say, the NGOs love the idea and advocate these aid targets. If it means less money from punters and more from DFID then so much the better - fundraising is an exhausting process, and lobbying government is easier).

Jackie Ashley and I had a disagreement this morning on whether the British public can be trusted to give money on their own (I always think of the response to the Haiti appeal, in time of deep recession). Ashley said that aid must be collected through the tax system because the people in this country just don't give enough. We don’t have a philanthropic culture like they do in America, she said. I could not disagree more.  We have an incredible philanthropic culture, which is threatened when the government tries to muscle in. If people think their taxes pay for Africa, then they’ll be less inclined to donate. One muscles out the other. Gordon Brown, of course, loved to supplant voluntary activity with state activity.

Cameron is famous for saying that there is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the state. Yet he echoes Brown’s thinking in saying that his pledge to up state aid (funded by jacking up the national debt) somehow represents Britain’s generosity as a country. The British public are incredibly generous, but they’ll be less generous if they are not trusted to give enough of their money by a government that thinks they are - at heart - mean. Cameron has swallowed a very statist argument here, and it sits oddly beside the 'Big Society' agenda that he will roll out in Liverpool tomorrow.

I'm not saying abolish DFID or its budget, there are many aid projects that governments can do better than chatities. But to sharply increase aid makes little sense, when we don't have the money. We send aid to Gaza when its life expectancy is higher than cities like Glasgow. There are so many good Malaria charities, we can fight this disease by giving to them - not waiting for the taxman to do it for us. There is no point congratualting ourselves on an Afghan school which has no teachers or pupils.