As the UK Department for International Development welcomes Anne-Marie Trevelyan as the sixth secretary of state in four years, ONE UK & Ireland Director Romilly Greenhill reflects on the legacy and future of UK aid.
My first job was in the Ugandan Finance Ministry. This was the early 2000s, and Uganda was getting a lot of aid and debt relief, including from the UK. My job was to monitor the money and check that it was spent on things that would help to reduce poverty, such as education, healthcare and support for farmers. The aid worked. Every time I drove outside the capital city I could see schools filled with children, many of them able to learn for the first time as new money flowed in.
Maybe I was biased, but the UK was one of the best donors in Uganda — always supporting what the Ugandan government was doing, providing long-term support to help the country invest in its own people. Other donors would tie their aid to their own products and their own experts, making it much less useful. In Tanzania, I’ve seen machinery supplied by Japan sitting idle in fields because it was Japanese and couldn’t be fixed by local people or with local parts when it went wrong.
But the UK doesn’t do this — by law, our aid isn’t tied to British companies.
Fast forward to 2015, when I was in a room full of UN negotiators in New York. This may sound dull, but these were the people working to agree a new set of international goals: the Sustainable Development Goals. Many of the developing country representatives were incandescent with rage because they felt that rich countries were asking them to sign up to ambitious development objectives without themselves meeting their commitments to provide international aid.
The one exception? The UK, the only one of the world’s leading economies to meet the 50-year old UN target to spend 0.7% of national income on aid.
This aid gives us clout, and buys us respect on the global stage. As UK citizens, living in this country, we often don’t realise how much people respect us around the world because we keep our promises. But the facts bear it out. A British Council survey across the major economies found that our commitment to development is the main reason why young people trust us. Lord Hannay of Chiswick, a former UK Ambassador to the UN, has also emphasised how much influence our development efforts bring us around the world.
As we welcome Anne-Marie Trevelyan as our new secretary of state, we urge the UK government to continue to uphold DFID’s standards and maintain its departmental independence.
Do we want to damage our hard-won global image by reducing our aid effort, or redirecting aid towards our own, narrow, British interests? Or do we keep our place at the world’s top table, helping to secure peace, progress and prosperity for all?