The case for international aid

International aid saves and improves lives around the world but is still a contentious issue for those who believe the money should stay on-Island. We explain why it’s important to take a global perspective as well as a local one.

Whenever there is a debate about international development or overseas aid, you can almost guarantee that at some point fairly early on someone will use the phrase “Charity begins at home”.

Usually this is followed by remarks such as “We shouldn’t be giving anything away to foreign countries when there are children without food on the table or homeless people here.”

No-one would argue that such local problems should not be addressed and indeed it is the duty of government and civil society to look after its own. But what this argument fails to recognise is the massive difference between being underprivileged in the Isle of Man and being underprivileged in some of the poorer countries around the world. Or that international aid is really a matter of justice rather than charity.

Here in the Isle of Man we are lucky to have all sorts of safety mechanisms to support our population. Accessible healthcare and education, a benefits system for those out of work or on low incomes, social housing and government/voluntary help. Sure, it’s not perfect and sometimes people fall between the gaps but we do have a foodbank. We do have a homeless shelter.

Compare that to say parts of Madagascar, where just recently people have been eating locusts and cactus leaves to stay alive because there was – literally – nothing else. Compare it to Haiti where natural disasters have wiped homes from the face of the earth not just once, but many times over. Compare it to Yemen where years of conflict have left people in constant fear and 71 per cent of the population in need of humanitarian assistance. Compare it to the many refugee camps around the world, where lives are put in limbo often for years with no prospect of a better future. Compare it to countries where there is no state support, where children are forced to work, often in dangerous circumstances, from a young age, where education is not encouraged or readily available beyond primary level, or where you are denied basic rights due to the colour of your skin, your sex or your beliefs.

It is entirely an accident of birth as to where we arrive in this world, whether we are born in one of the wealthier countries like the Isle of Man or one of the poorest, such as Mali. Whether it is to a rich family or a struggling one, whether we are in an advanced economy with education and representation for all, or a country that has been ransacked by colonial or foreign powers and left with huge burdens of debt, or a country where life is just so much harder due to its geographical and environmental challenges. This is something over which we have no influence yet those of us born lucky are sometimes so loathe to extend that good fortune to others.

Another common objection to overseas aid is that the money does not reach the people it should – but is syphoned off through corruption or misspent by poor governance. It is true there have been some examples of this, particularly in the early days of international aid, but it is something the aid agencies and donor governments have worked hard to overcome in more recent decades.

Today, to obtain financial assistance for a project, charities and NGOs must produce clearly targeted, evidenced plans that show exactly how the money will be spent and by whom. There needs to be a clear goal, with positive and (most importantly) sustainable outcomes for the beneficiaries, and there needs to be all kinds of safeguards in place, including procedures around working with vulnerable people.

From an accounting viewpoint, charities and NGOs have to show how money is to be used and transferred, and follow all the rules and regulation around Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism. Reports need to be filed regularly and often any money given is staged, dependent on the results being achieved. Ask any charity working overseas how easy it is to get a grant and they will tell you it is a long and tortuous process, such is the scrutiny that is given to these applications.

In monetary terms it is quite easy to jump on the some of the numbers involved. The Isle of Man, for example, currently has a budget of £2.5m for international development. To most people, £2.5m is still a lot of money but in reality it is a tiny 0.06% of national income. The UN recommends that richer economies (and the Isle of Man is certainly one of those) should give 0.7% of income in international aid. This would equate to more than £35m for the Isle of Man so we are clearly already underfunding by a massive degree. To argue to remove the small amount that we do give to help others so much less fortunate than ourselves is surely demonstrating a lack of understanding – some might say compassion – for our fellow human beings.

Perhaps part of the reason why overseas aid becomes so divisive is the way in which it is framed. Often advocates of aid will claim it is “the moral thing” to do which carries in it the implication that those who aren’t in favour have fewer morals or are somehow less virtuous. But many of the people we meet who disagree with overseas aid are not actually against helping others – it’s the identity and location of those others that concerns them.

At the One World Centre, we focus on global citizenship, taking a wider view of the world and the Isle of Man’s place in it. For no matter how much we might be tempted to look inwards as a nation, we live in a world where we are very much interconnected and interdependent on others. Coronavirus, Brexit, climate change and our reliance on cheap goods from Asia are just some examples of this inextricable link between us. There is also our past to consider: like it or not, we were part of a colonial empire which created many divisions in the countries that it conquered and later withdrew from.

A world in which there is so much inequality and injustice is also an unstable one and, even if we were to disregard the humanitarian perspective, there are economic and security arguments as to why we should commit to making it a fairer place.

In recognition of this, in 2015 the 193 member states of the United Nations launched the Sustainable Development Goals, a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet. With 169 targets set around 17 goals, the SDGs apply to developed countries just as much as developing ones.

They provide an excellent framework for governments and society to focus on key areas such as hunger, education, poverty, health and the environment, both in their own countries and internationally. The aim is to work together to leave no-one behind – an ambition that acknowledges that while charity may start at home, it most definitely shouldn’t end there.