Defending Compassion: Petition to Protect International Aid

As if the theft of the European dream from under our noses were not enough, we now find ourselves having to defend another great bastion of liberal internationalism – overseas aid. (Petition attached.)


Previously, I’ve written at some length about my dismay over the Brexiteers’ culture of extreme selfishness when it comes to international affairs. Conservative reassurances have done nothing to assuage my fears of a post-Brexit Britain characterised by poor ethics and complete disregard for its neighbours. I was not overwhelmingly surprised, therefore, at my latest grisly discovery within the annals of the government’s petition portal – a proposal to cut international aid.

Autists tend to struggle with empathy; a key reason, perhaps, for my generally unsympathetic instincts towards my opponents’ motivations. Yet I find anti-humanitarian petitions such as this one (movements against refugee resettlement fall into the same category, though I shall leave that for another time) to be particularly enigmatic, and especially repulsive.

To put the situation into context, the UK only just meets the UN international aid target.

In 1970, the United Nations set a target that all developed nations should spend at least 0.7% of their GDP on overseas aid. This modest goal, equating to just 7p in every £10, has remained the same ever since, though the UK has not, for most of that time, fulfilled it. After signing up to the target in 1974, the UK failed to meet it for an eye-watering 38 consecutive years, before finally scraping the 0.7% mark in 2013, and writing it into law two years later.

Despite this less than impressive track record, anecdotal evidence suggests widespread support for the popular urban myth that the UK is by far the world’s most generous contributor to international aid. The following top-10 chart thoroughly dispels this fallacy.


Note that the UK is the world’s fifth-richest country; hence its sixth-place position in the above chart appears about right. On a personal note, I am also pleased to see that of the five top contributors, four are EU member states, and the fifth, Norway, a close collaborator thereof.

Critics would no doubt be keen to point the finger at the large number of countries (including those even wealthier than the UK) failing to meet the UN’s target. The contribution of the world’s richest country, the USA, is particularly dismal, at around 0.2% of GDP. I should hope I would be forgiven for thinking, however, that sound ethics or sensible political policy are very seldom built upon the assumption that two wrongs make a right.

Other critics would, I’m sure, pounce upon the following chart, which shows the diversity of ways in which overseas aid money is spent. Lest I be accused of hiding anything, here it is…


I won’t deny that this one surprised me. The “humanitarian” category (more accurately described as crisis relief) is the one whose importance is most easily recognised and many will be intrigued, perhaps even concerned, to see that this section of the chart is relatively small. However, the more I have reflected upon these numbers, the more I have come to realise that the story they tell is largely one of success.

Suffering and death caused in various ways by extreme poverty around the world are certainly not limited to large-scale, individually identified crises, and when it does come to such cataclysmic events, the “prevention rather than cure” mentality must also be taken into account. Epidemics can in some cases be prevented by the building of hospitals and other healthcare facilities, the risk of political crises can be mitigated by improvements made to a country’s democratic system, and investments in infrastructure can leave a society vastly better equipped to tackle extreme poverty in both the short- and long-term future.

(Thanks to the fact-checking charity Full Fact for these charts and figures.)

In the grand scheme of things, the UK’s contribution to international aid is not meagre, but it is not disproportionately generous either.

Recent history presents us with a wealth of evidence to support the idea that Britain has an overwhelming moral responsibility, through international aid and other humanitarian measures, to clean up its own mess. It is now widely accepted, to give just one example, that Britain’s support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, an event which was undoubtedly a major contributing factor in causing numerous humanitarian crises in the Middle East, was not justifiable.

Looking further back, we discover many examples of the selectiveness of mainstream British awareness of history. A disproportionately large amount of attention is directed towards the two World Wars – events that, for all their tragedy and horror, cast Britain in a heroically positive light. I have, of course, no wish to forget or disrespect British war veterans, or veterans of Britain’s allies across Europe and the world, but it must be said that a wider historical view of Britain, taking into account the British Empire in particular, reveals a country that has, in the grand scheme of things, been in the wrong far more than in the right. Participation in the slave trade, the Crusades, the oppression of India and the genocide of the native tribes of North America are all dark chapters of British history all too often forgotten by misguided patriots. (On a personal side-note, I always enjoy reminding the far right that if they want to see what “the immigrants taking over” really looks like, they should read up on the history of British imperialism.)

Some might try to dismiss these inconvenient truths as ancient history. Yet the roots of many of the modern world’s painfully real conflicts and crises can be traced back many centuries – to problems often caused, or at the very least significantly exacerbated, by Britain. Overseas aid therefore becomes arguably a simple measure of common sense; a country’s attempt to repair just a small amount of the damage it has done to the world.

But I digress. All of this pales into insignificance beside the simple, powerful truth that is the main reason to support international aid – it saves lives. It eases suffering. It brings help, hope and relief to needy people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in desperate, often life-threatening circumstances. I simply cannot comprehend the mind of a person who doesn’t feel some moral obligation to support (or, at the very least, to refrain from impeding) measures to save the lives of their fellow human beings. An international aid cut would doubtless cost a huge number of innocent lives, and it is profoundly disturbing to realise that even a small minority of people in a supposedly civilised country are willing to go out of their way to support such barbaric cruelty.

This petition is, on the most fundamental level, an attempt to let innocent people die.

The petition’s body text suggests spending the savings of the cuts on the military. Defence is important, of course, yet I cannot help but find my first impression of the signatories – the mental image of a group of people who would much rather end another person’s life than save one – to be reinforced still further by this upsetting detail.

Brief background research reveals that the campaign, spear-headed by a long-serving and unsurprisingly anti-European Conservative councillor, and supported by a national newspaper (I’m not told which, though the phalanx of far-right British tabloids provide a wealth of suspects) offers one key argument in an attempt to justify itself – that international aid money isn’t always wisely spent.

Here I must clarify the detail of my own position. I do not deny that the international aid budget numbers among the many resources currently being mismanaged by the Conservatives. If the petition was merely calling for continual review of how overseas aid money is spent, with the view to making the UK’s humanitarian work as effective as possible, I would gladly be the first to sign and promote it. Yet it is clear to me that this petition does not aspire to such noble aims. Instead, it seeks to use the failings and shortcomings of the Conservatives’ international aid department as an excuse to reply to the needs of the less fortunate with the usual Tory reaction – that of complete indifference.

My opposition to any potential cut is not about ignoring misuses of international aid funds. I strongly support every effort to ensure that resources are used appropriately.

All this brought me to a quandary. My own health has declined further recently, as suitable treatment for my severe (and politically induced) depression has, with tragic irony, been incredibly difficult to find in an NHS ravaged by Brexit. Even my hope of using my (international aid-related) charity work as an escape was dashed with the announcement of a 15-20% scale-back to accommodate sharply rising export costs due to the falling pound, and the introduction of a government-ordered immigration status check for all volunteers. It is, in short, not a good time for me to pick a fight. As always, however, I find myself weighing up the risks of acting against the risks of not acting – and finding the latter to be by far the heavier burden.

This attack on international aid must, for the sake of the innocent lives it would cost, be opposed.

And so I have opted for a tried-and-trusted, if perhaps slightly unimaginative, method; a counter-petition.

I’m confident that this is a winnable battle. Despite experienced leadership and national media support, the campaign currently has fewer than 20,000 signatures. I may, in all honesty, be worrying over nothing. However, Brexit and other recent right-wing gains across Europe have taught us the hard way what happens when indifference (or even downright hostility) towards our international neighbours is allowed to go unchallenged. It is definitely better to be safe than to be sorry.

Please sign and share widely. Let’s quell this attack on humanitarianism before it becomes a real threat.