I’ve had several emails demanding nothing short of the discontinuation of UK Aid as a consequence of the revelations about Oxfam in Haiti and the subsequent furore.
I don’t think that this sordid and tawdry affair alters the fundamentals of the case for UK Aid.
Our international development effort rests on two pillars: First, that as the fifth richest country on the planet, we have a duty to help those poorest countries struggling to catch up. This duty is currently discharged in the commitment we make to spend 0.7% of our income on aid to the poorest countries, leaving us all of 99.7% of our income for ourselves.
The second pillar is our own national self-interest: The objective of our aid budget is the same as that of our Defence budget and our Foreign Office budget, namely to project our power and influence internationally, in order to deliver stability and security in which we will prosper.
I am always keen to argue about how this budget could be spent more effectively to achieve this end, but I do not question that it continues to be in our interest to spend it. Indeed, at this point in our history, when we are leaving the EU and seeking to re-establish our place in the international order, I think it would be folly to reduce the ‘soft power’ that our UK Aid represents and the influence internationally that it affords us.
‘Sex-gate’ has raced through Hollywood, Parliament, the media, and sport. Now it has reached international humanitarian and development aid. It raises questions about the way we go about doing things but it does not fundamentally undermine the purpose of doing them.
Nevertheless it does underline the importance of taking control of your supply chain if you are to avoid severe reputational damage. If our Department of International Development subcontracts a project to Oxfam to deliver, then it has to be exacting in the standards that it demands.
This is by no means straightforward. for example, let’s say we decide to fund a reputable international organisation like The World Bank, to build a hospital in a very poor country like Nepal.
The World Bank, then sub-contracts to civil engineering companies and builders to carry out the work. One of the builders orders locally made bricks –which is a good thing because it helps the local economy and creates jobs.
Then investigative journalists discover that the brick-maker is employing child labour in frightful conditions. The reputational damage will go right back up the chain to the World Bank and our own Government for not investigating carefully enough exactly what they were paying for.
The same discipline applies to entirely commercial undertakings: when Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013, killing over a thousand garment workers, the reputational damage rebounded on our own high street chains for not taking more care over the conditions in which their imported stock was being manufactured.
We all have a duty to ask searching questions about what we buy and about charities that we support.
If things turn look too good to be true, usually it’s because they just aren’t true