Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Now more than ever: in defence of aid

Ben Simms, THET CEO, reflects on the challenges we face as individuals engaging in the health partnership approach as we live through this tumultuous period in UK political history.
UK Volunteer in South Sudan with the Winchester-Yei Partnership
We are living in profoundly troubled and even toxic times, an age when our optimism and idealism is being tested to the hilt.
There is no escaping the fact that the vote to leave the European Union and the appointment of a new Secretary of State for International Development piles on new degrees of uncertainty about the future of the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7% of our Gross National Income on overseas development aid.

Britain is now one of just six wealthier countries to meet this long-standing UN target. In 2015, the UK donated £13.21 billion in overseas aid. It is a profound and impressive contribution, and I believe we are in a fight to ensure this commitment is kept.

Under this government I believe our chances are good. It is, after all, a 2015 Manifesto pledge. But there are others, joined by The Daily Mail, who would wish it away.

And what level of funding will 0.7% deliver if our economy contracts and the value of sterling falls? THET, a medium-sized charity, and our partners, are already feeling the effects of unfavourable exchange rates. It is deeply troubling.

The EU referendum and cabinet reshuffle has also delayed decision-making in DFID. 14 months in to the life of the current UK government we are still unclear about their intentions in relation to most aspects of their development expenditure – multilateral, bilateral and in relation to civil society.

One way of defending the aid commitment is to seize the opportunity provided with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The SDGs are a useful communication tool. They are universal. It is just as important to address poverty in Caerphilly as we do in Mbale. It is not one or the other, either/or, over there or over here, it is simply, unequivocally, a fight to end poverty and improve health everywhere.

The SDGs point to the inter-connectedness of our world. As does the health partnership approach, with its emphasis on reciprocity and mutual benefit: the idea that all who engage in training health workers overseas benefit from the kind of professional growth that brings great benefits to our working lives back in the U.K.

However, a new rhetoric is emerging around ‘mutual benefit’ which risks distorting the purpose of aid. I am thinking in particular about the November 2015 publication 'UK aid: tackling global challenges in the national interest'. Here, poverty alleviation is listed as the fourth goal.

I am an enthusiast for the idea of recognising mutual benefit. THET’s new strategy places the concept of co-development at its heart. However, there is a risk, that in embracing the universality of the SDGs and defending the benefit we derive here in the UK from working overseas, aid priorities will be defined too much in terms of our own national interest, and not enough in favour of the governments and people of lower and middle-income countries.

A risk, in other words, that in defending aid from the attacks by the Daily Mail we’ll begin to think and sound too much like the Daily Mail.

It is therefore vital that those involved in health partnerships must be expert in striking the right balance. Alongside our clinical expertise we must be applying good international development practice. 

That is why THET has embarked on a journey of producing a policy paper which will articulate what the appropriate balance between UK national interest and benefit to aid-recipient countries should look like. This paper is being put together in collaboration with leading thinkers from the north and south, such as Lord Crisp, Professor Myles Wickstead, Jim Campbell at the World Health Organisation, and Dr Mliga from Tanzania.

The paper will be launched at our conference this October which will also throw light on striking the right balance through a series of peer-reviewed presentations.

The world is at a crossroads.

As individuals and institutions involved in the health partnership approach, we must:
  • Defend our historic 0.7% commitment to aid.
  • Promote the universality of the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Strike the right balance between what we expect to give and what we hope to receive; I am unashamed in applying a mutual benefit lens to our work in global health, recognising the enormous benefit we derive as individuals and as UK institutions, but our work must be grounded in an analysis of what our host countries ask of us.

Now more than ever we must work with idealism to promote the value of aid, and to articulate a vision through health partnerships of how we all benefit from being part of a world bent on ending poverty.

This blog is based on a speech given at the Wales for Africa conference, which you can read on the THET website.