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Why the worlds poorest must always come first when it comes to UK Aid

Why the world’s poorest must always come first when it comes to UK Aid

When it comes to tackling extreme poverty globally, Britain is a world leader. The Prime Minister was right during her visit to Africa this week to make a strong case for aid, to re-commit to the 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) aid spending commitment and to be proud of Britain’s contribution.

It is also clear that spending on good quality aid to tackle poverty is, as the Prime Minister said, in our national interest. For example, Britain rightly helped the people of West Africa beat Ebola, saving lives and helping to prevent the spread of the virus beyond the region and potentially into the UK.

While working at the Government’s Department for International Development (DFID), I helped draft the 2015 UK Aid Strategy – the first Government-wide approach to aid – which made a strong case that aid is in the UK’s national interest, so I am a strong proponent of that argument.

Helping girls get an education increases their ability to get a decent job in adulthood, in turn driving economic growth that helps countries escape poverty, as Foreign Office Minister Harriet Baldwin pointed out earlier this week.

A fundamental shift in the way we use aid?

However, we always had a guiding ‘poverty first’ principle: that helping the world’s poorest through our aid was the most important thing, while national interest was also important but secondary.

The Prime Minister heralds a 'fundamental strategic shift in the way we use our aid programme’ and says it must be ‘fully aligned with our wider national security priorities’. 

Is the Government reaching a tipping point where national interest trumps helping the poorest? Where this poverty first principle is under threat?

Not yet, is my conclusion. But with a tough Spending Review coming up, which will allocate resources across Government for years ahead, I worry it will be all too easy to cross the line.

A girl smiles in Malawi
Plan International has worked in Malawi since 1994, helping children access their rights to health and education. Malawi is among the world’s 10 least developed countries and faces several challenges including food insecurity and rising poverty.

Maintaining the poverty first principle

Ensuring we maintain the poverty first guiding principle is both the morally right and smart thing to do.

We made a commitment to the world’s poorest to spend 0.7% of GNI helping them escape poverty. It is right we keep those promises. Around a billion people still live in daily poverty; we should, as a principled and wealthy nation, help them escape it.

The British public have a history of enormous generosity when it comes to supporting overseas poverty alleviation efforts; evidence overwhelmingly shows they are motivated by the moral case, as well as that it helps Britain stand tall in the world.

Our aid commitment also gives us enormous ‘soft power’ on the world stage, which translates into the ability to shape decisions in the global corridors of power, a valuable commodity at a time when we want to project ‘Global Britain’.

I am confident the Government will continue to explicitly put the world’s poorest at the heart of how it allocates aid. 

It should make the poverty first principle an explicit criteria for allocating aid in the upcoming Spending Review, while also recognising the importance of national interest. It is not only the right thing, it is also the smart thing to do.

Follow Simon Bishop on Twitter @sibishop

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