U.K. Prime Minister delivers remarks at the London Summit on Family Planning in July 2012. Photo by: Russell Watkins / Department for International Development / CC BY-SA

Members of the U.K. aid community are blasting a conservative think tank for suggesting government divert aid money toward the military.

“A report that is based more on sweeping generalisations and the author’s beliefs than on evidence is hardly a good basis for rethinking Britain’s development policy,” Bond Chief Executive Ben Jackson told Devex in a joint statement with the U.K. Aid Network in response to a report by Civitas.

The report, entitled “Aiding and Abetting: Foreign aid failures and the 0.7 percent deception,” urges the United Kingdom to abandon its goal of increasing foreign aid spending so that it reaches 0.7 percent of gross national income. The administration of Prime Minister David Cameron, while pushing severe spending cuts, has ring-fenced its aid budget despite some public criticism.

The report, written by Civitas Senior Research Fellow Jonathan Foreman, recommends a third of U.K. aid be diverted to the Ministry of Defense, arguing that British armed forces can deliver “certain kinds” of emergency aid “more quickly and more effectively than any NGO or international aid agency.”

This diversion would likely reduce the “effectiveness of our aid,” U.K. Aid Network Coordinator Amy Dodd shot back in an email to Devex. Meanwhile, Alice Allan, head of advocacy at CARE International UK, said the government “should not be distracted by this report.”

“The U.K. woke up to the dangers of spending development aid to promote British defense and trade interests long ago and brought in legislation to outlaw it in 2002,” she said.

Long-term development or emergency aid?

Foreman suggests the U.K. shift its focus to emergency humanitarian aid, which he suggests is “less likely to do harm than many forms of overseas development aid.”

The argument is contentious given that donors and nongovernmental organizations are trying to beef up investment in areas such as disaster risk reduction to prevent humanitarian crises. Emergency aid and long-term development are “very different in nature,” Plan International U.K. CEO Marie Staunton told Devex.

“It is true that meeting short-term, urgent need can give quick results but sustainable change brought about by long-term development and investment in developing countries, is increasingly what communities want and governments request,” Staunton said in explaining her organization’s rights-based approach to development.

Altruism vs. the profit motif

In an interesting aside, Foreman argues that “non-altruistic justifications for the UK’s lavish aid budget … have little or no basis in reality.” Leaders from around the world - including U.S. President Barack Obama and many bilateral aid chiefs - have suggested otherwise, and so did Staunton.

“Many of the world’s problems can be countered through the knock-on benefits of aid,” she said. “Building and supporting schools can help stop harmful traditional practices like child marriage and stop the spread of extremism; vaccinations help halt pandemics; skills training tackles drug trafficking and funding microfinance reduces unchecked migration.”

Staunton did agree, though, that aid effectiveness is a challenging issue that “should be open to scrutiny” - although she does not go as far as Foreman, who in his report suggests that success stories of U.K. aid effectiveness, such as claims of having got some 5 million children into school since 2003, are an “illusion” and “less uplifting” in reality. (Foreman cites a report in 2011 that shows much of DfID’s multimillion dollar programs in India were spent on non-existent schools or care for private officials.)

Foreman isn’t calling for the end of British foreign aid, but for it to be “reality-based rather than faith-based” - and his report has surely got the development community talking.

What do you think? Should the United Kingdom begin to rethink its development policy, and, among other things, divert aid funds to the military? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.