BRITISH support for the poorest people in the world is under attack. Screaming headlines in the press have denounced UK aid. The Daily Mail launched an official campaign to scrap the 0.7 per cent that the country spends out of its national income on the world’s poor. Apparently, the Mail is appalled that we spend just 99.3 per cent of our money on ourselves.
The Prime Minister has so far backed the commitment that was enshrined in the last Conservative manifesto; but, for critics of aid, the great prize is to see it scratched out of the next one. Government ministers mulling their future aid policy might be interested to see recent research conducted as part of the Aid Attitude Tracker, revealing the views of people of faith.
The number wanting the UK aid budget to remain at its current level, or increase, is 63 per cent among Anglicans who attend church at least once a week. It would be great to see the Archbishop of Canterbury reflect this level of support by making the case for aid more often.
AID is often oversold as a miracle cure, but the newspaper headlines are not “fake news”. It is important to recognise that aid is not perfect. In fact, any aid agency worth its salt should be seeking to address the deep structural causes of poverty which create the need for aid in the first place.
But the UK aid budget can be a powerful catalyst for this kind of deeper change. Whether it is boosting job opportunities, bringing renewable energy to communities that are without electricity, or improving governance so that politicians are held accountable, UK aid is often transformative.
The problem is that you are unlikely to read about this in the mainstream press. As the journalistic saying goes, “Dog bites man” is not a story, but “Man bites dog” is. The good achieved by most aid will not make headlines, but a single example of aid misspent will.
Even the most derided UK aid project, that of the “Ethiopian Spice Girls”, is not as straightforward as the critics have made out. In patriarchal Ethiopia, two in every five girls are married by their 18th birthday, and nearly one in every five is married before the age of 15.
To tackle this systemic culture, which crushes female opportunity, the UK gave aid funding to the programme Girl Effect. Besides the band Yegna, it produced dramas, talk shows, and youth clubs to challenge attitudes about child marriage, domestic violence, and education. The authoritarian government in Ethiopia bans NGOs from advocacy work; so this was an innovative and accessible way to engage people at the grass roots.
Yegna reached 8.5 million people. Seventy-six per cent of girls who listened said that it inspired them to continue their education; 95 per cent of boys who listened said that they would speak out against forcing a girl to marry.
It was a well-rated, independently assessed aid programme, but the Department for International Development (DfID) bowed to media pressure and pulled the funding. (The DfID, of course, denies that its decision had anything to do with the prominent Daily Mail campaign against it.) Most aid programmes are reassuringly “boring”: paradoxically, the very innovation that made Girl Effect a success ultimately attracted the attention that killed it.
AS BRITAIN decides the kind of country it will be after Brexit, the divide is less about Left and Right than about open or closed. Will the country follow the lead of President Trump’s “America First” and turn inwards, or will it use its decoupling from the European Union to forge a more open relationship with the wider world?
The author David Goodhart has said that the dividing line in Britain is between people from “somewhere” versus people from “anywhere”. But the Church of England unites the local with the global. There is nothing as locally rooted as a parish church, and yet within it there may well be a Traidcraft stall, and people organising a Christian Aid Week collection.
The Christian’s love for the poor, today’s equivalent of “orphans and widows”, is captured in James 1.27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
In the battle for the British aid budget, Anglicans have a vital part to play in shoring up support. If the Church of England is the Tory Party at prayer, which a 2014 Theos report suggested was still true, then this Government, led by a daughter of the vicarage, may heed the Anglican voice.
MPs are often swayed by what is in their mailbag. Writing to your MP in support of British aid would be a local act of global significance.
Joe Ware is Church and Campaigns Journalist for Christian Aid.
Listen to an interview with Joe Ware on episode 3 of the Church Times Podcast: