Comment: Aid budget is not the right pot to plunder

By Tanya Barron

The idea that money from Britain’s aid budget could be diverted into military spending is deeply worrying.  David Cameron made the suggestion at the end of his much-publicised trip to India, stating that in addition to the UK’s moral responsibilities to tackle poverty, the country must attend to its ”national security responsibilities.” This may be true, but the aid budget is not the pot to plunder.

When the coalition came to power in 2010 they pledged to ring-fence aid spending. In doing so, they made a promise to help some of the world’s most disadvantaged children and their families move themselves out of poverty, towards opportunity. Promises of this kind are not made to be broken. 2013 is the first year in which the UK will hit the United Nation’s target of spending 0.7% of national income on overseas aid.  No other G8 nation has taken such an impressive stance. Aid needs protection; not destruction or diversion.

The principle that aid should be used to tackle poverty is enshrined in law and internationally-agreed definitions. Importantly, it is also enshrined in public expectation.  British people assume aid money will do what it says on the tin – saving lives and tackling poverty and inequality.

The country’s record in aid delivery should be a source of national pride – to be celebrated, rather than endangered. The country is a clear leader in tackling poverty and inequality around the world. By 2015, British taxpayers’ money through the Department for International Development will secure schooling for 11 million children internationally. This is more kids than we educate in the UK, but at 2.5 per cent of the cost – a vital contribution in a world where 66 million girls are denied an education.  Why would we want to jeopardise that kind of effectiveness and efficiency? To now endanger that by mixing aid and defence budgets is both unethical and ineffectual. It goes against the principles of aid and endangers the UK’s impressive record in helping some of the world’s poorest families.

The ethics of mixing aid and defence budgets must also be called into question. Humanitarian principles are clear – founded on impartiality and based on need.  Defence is not built on the same blocks.  We must make every effort possible to conserve the neutrality of aid. Blurring the boundaries between aid delivery and military action could have devastating consequences – putting the lives of aid workers at risk and damaging their relationships with local people and the effectiveness of their work.

Siphoning off a relatively tiny amount of money from a targeted and vital aid budget is not going to help ministers plug cuts in £37 billion of defence spending. Instead it could imperil life-saving work and muddy humanitarian principles. Security and stability are crucial if people in some of the world’s poorest countries are to have the opportunity to fulfil their rights and potential.  However, militarising the aid budget is not the solution.

Tanya Barron is chief executive of international children’s charity Plan UK.

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