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Help needed

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - June 8, 2021 - 12:00am

A little bit of help can go a long way. It can make the difference between life and death; between mere survival and a real future with choices and opportunities for family, school and work.

Here in the UK, an ongoing debate over aid to foreign countries is providing an insight into the political debate that decides whether or not one of the world’s biggest donors will withdraw such help or not.

It’s a very different view from when I first encountered the aid phenomenon in the Philippines on the so-called Business beat in the early ‘90s. As a recipient of foreign aid, the issues that surrounded coverage in Manila were to do with the terms and conditions of Official Development Aid, and how the government decided to use it to strengthen the economy. Moreover, aid was associated with foreign debt, which created even more poverty.

“Being a severely indebted country means being in a state of perpetual financial haemorrhage,” wrote Rosalinda Pineda-Ofreneo for aid agency Oxfam that year. “For the Philippines, debt service for 1990 totalled $4,719 billion, more than a billion dollars higher than the $3,670 billion recorded in 1989. Because more money has gone out of the country as interest and principal payments than has come in as ‘new money,’ negative net resource outflows or transfers have been building up. In the years 1988-1990, these totalled a minus of $6,893 billion.”

The debates surrounding the fundamental question of how foreign aid really helps people, rather than governments (both donor and recipient), have changed but the question itself is and should continue to be asked.

This week, the UK government is facing a rebellion from some of his own Members of Parliament and party over foreign aid. The debate is focused on life-saving humanitarian aid, rather than development aid. Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised in the Conservative Party manifesto that they would spend 0.7 percent of the national income on helping other countries; that was before COVID-19 hit global economies.

Last year, ministers decided to reduce this year’s spending on overseas aid to 0.5 percent of the national income, saying it was hard to justify, given that the UK faces record levels of peacetime borrowing to cope with the pandemic.

On Monday, about 30 Conservative MPs threatened to use a vote in the House of Commons to force the government to keep international development spending at current levels.

The UK is a significant world donor, its money does indeed make huge differences to people’s lives, according to charities who are protesting against the government’s planned cut too.

The government is counting on foreign aid being an easy political target. The UK Health Secretary told the BBC it was a “temporary” reduction, which was “entirely reasonable” given that the pandemic had caused a “once-in-300-year economic interruption.”

Foreign aid is resources given from one country to another. It can involve a transfer of things like food or equipment, or even people, to provide training and medical help. In 2020, the UK spent £14.5 billion on aid, meeting its 0.7 percent target, according to provisional data. The top five recipients were Pakistan, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Yemen and Nigeria, with almost all the money going to countries in Africa and Asia.

Now ministers have cut the spending without changing a 2015 law which made the 0.7 percent target legally binding. That’s provided the basis for the 30 Conservative would-be rebels to say they are planning to reverse the cuts by voting to amend legislation related to a new scientific research agency.

Families are going hungry and girls are missing school because of the UK’s cuts to foreign aid spending, dozens of charities and academics have warned.

In a letter to PM Johnson, they said there was “no justifiable economic need” for cuts of almost £4 billion a year. Save the Children, WWF UK and Cafod said the reduction had already led to the closure of feeding centers and clinics – and forced the cancellation of projects including water sanitation and training for health care workers. The letter was signed by more than 1,700 academics, charities and business leaders and added that because the cuts had been made during the pandemic, it was a “double blow to the world’s poorest communities.”

Significantly, a politician who is usually skeptical when it comes to foreign aid, David Davis, the former Tory Brexit secretary, has said the 42 percent budget cut risks killing thousands of people, calling it “immoral.”

“You’ve got massive cuts in things like clean water. (Dirty water) kills children worldwide, an 80 percent cut means 10 million people lose their access. You’ve got cuts in funding food, people starving, quarter of million people, again thousands will die and large numbers of children. I’m historically a critic of aid spending, but doing it this way is really so harmful,” he told the BBC’s Radio Four. “Morally, this is a devastating thing for us to do,” he added.

One specific example is the refugee situation in Bangladesh. A group of aid agencies working with Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, wrote a letter last week to the Foreign Office minister for Asia (whose work includes the Philippines), warning that the cuts will leave about 70,000 people without health services and 100,000 without water just as the cyclone season threatens.

Critics are placing the cuts in the context of the UK’s declining influence to strengthen their argument. Johnson’s administration faces this potential rebellion in the same week the UK is to host the G7 group of major advanced economies meets. As Davis put it: “If you want to take a real politik argument, we’re throwing away enormous influence, particularly in Africa. Where’s the great ideological battle with China?”

Having worked as a journalist and aid worker during conflict, humanitarian emergencies, as well as being a UK tax-payer, what seems clear to me is the need to make aid work better and for people to understand how it works. The issue will always be debated over, as it should be. The worrying part is that the arguments still seem to be stuck over whether life-saving aid is even needed, instead of how to make it more effective.

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