The first thing to understand is that the public doesn’t just resent any money being spent on international development. Freezing the budget is significantly more popular – with 69 per cent support and 12 per cent opposed – than scrapping it outright – with 43 per cent support and 33 per cent opposed. People strongly support giving aid to developing countries when it can directly save lives after a natural disaster, with 81 per cent agreeing and just 12 per cent disagreeing.
Their opposition to aid is founded on very legitimate concerns, there are specific areas people want to see cut. 83 per cent don’t want us to be giving aid to countries with large, successful economies. India is the biggest single recipient of British aid but their government could easily redirect about a third of their space programme budget or a fifth of one per cent of their overall budget to cover it. If Indian politicians choose not to spend on the objectives covered by British aid, we can try to persuade them otherwise instead of stepping in with our own money.
70 per cent don’t want to give aid to countries that repress their people or have a poor human rights record. When we are writing cheques (or providing “Budget Support” in the International Development jargon) to a Rwandan government that the Metropolitan Police recently warned might be trying to murder dissidents living in London, that’s pretty understandable.
78 per cent don’t want to give aid to countries with corrupt governments. Again that doesn’t mean we can’t try to help people in Pakistan. But it does mean not sending money to a government headed by a politician known as Mr Ten Percent for his knack of getting hold of a kickback.
77 per cent say we shouldn’t give aid to countries with links to terrorists or terrorism. We give extensive budget support to the Palestinian authorities. Their official media endlessly promotes the idea of a world without Israel and leaves their young population – 42 per cent aged under 15 – less and less well prepared for a world where the two states live peacefully side by side.
Finally, 63 per cent of people don’t want big charities that spend large amounts of money on things other than giving aid to the developing world getting grants from DfID’s budget. Around a third of the budget of charities like Oxfam goes on non-project spending but they get millions of pounds in public money. They spend huge amounts of money on lecturing adverts about climate change or lobbying for the dreadful Robin Hood Tax idea instead of doing something concrete to help the world’s poorest people.
I don’t think the public are immune to the kind of statistics Tim Montgomerie has written about recently. I think if you asked them they would agree spending £2.22 to vaccinate ten children against polio was pretty good value. Indeed when it comes to the genuinely moral act of giving their own money away to the developing world, British people are very generous by most international comparisons.
They just quite reasonably believe that it isn’t necessary to increase drastically aid in order to pay for that kind of thing. Freezing the budget would mean giving international development the same kind of treatment as an undeniably important budget like science. That’s the obvious way to find a reasonable middle ground between the position of the government and the aid industry and the public. The only question is whether or not they want to compromise with voters.
Matthew Sinclair is director of the TaxPayers' Alliance