Earlier this week, the right-wing British tabloid the Daily Mail launched a campaign for the government to divert cash from the foreign aid budget to help victims of the catastrophic floods wreaking havoc in southern England and Wales.
Populist campaigns are nothing new for the Mail, and this one – which attracted more than 100,000 signatures in 48 hours – followed a similar call by populist right-winger Nigel Farage, whose small UK Independence Party (UKIP) wants Britain to quit the European Union and who enjoys thinking up fringe policies which irritate the ruling Conservatives.
The Mail campaign, though hardly surprising, did stir debate about the contentious issue of Britain’s foreign aid. It also brought to light questions such as why the UK has not applied for cash from the EU Solidarity Fund, set up precisely to help member states tackle natural disasters, and facts such as that we spend more on fizzy drinks than overseas aid.
The Daily Express, an iconoclastic tabloid, also backed Farage’s proposal, which garnered quite a bit of public support given the hundreds of homes evacuated, shops flooded, farmland submerged during the wettest January in nearly 250 years.
The Express, arguing that Britons always help out when disaster strikes other parts of the world, asked how much aid money is spent on dubious programmes like one in Kenya which funds “tribal rainmakers to come up with a “consensus weather forecast” with that country’s Meteorological Office.”
So when the low-lying Somerset Levels “resemble the scenes of destruction we more commonly associate with Bangladesh after a monsoon,” as the Express’s Ross Clark writes, it only makes sense to make better use of our own money. Right?
Wrong, the campaign’s many opponents say. For one thing , monsoon rains fall every year in Bangladesh.
For another, the suffering in Somerset is mild compared with that of the over 2 million people left homeless by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, or the 9 million affected by typhoon Haiyan in the central Philippines last November, Memphis Barker writes in the Independent.
Peter Oborne, chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph, agreed. “In truth, it is both disrespectful and ignorant to compare the floods that have struck Britain with the terrible devastation that is a fact of everyday life in developing countries – or to argue that we should cut off our aid spending there to pay for repairs here,” he writes.
Halting development aid would have a negative impact in the long term where it’s been proved to be doing some good, Barker wrote, giving the examples of Burundi, where British aid helped create a successful tax authority, and northern Nigeria, where it helped increase farmers’ incomes.
In my opinion, the most convincing argument was made in the New Statesman magazine by Jonathan Tanner, a media and public affairs officer at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), addressing the “charity begins at home” argument.
“It’s easy to forget that Britain’s aid budget comes in at 0.7 percent of our national wealth. It’s less in total than we spend on fizzy drinks in a year,” Tanner writes. “With 99 percent of our spending happening "at home", it’s not accurate to suggest that charity does not already begin at home.”
The 0.7 percent of GDP the UK has committed to spending annually on overseas aid amounts this year to 11 billion sterling, to be spent on development aid and emergency and disaster relief response overseas, and is managed by the Department for International Development (DFID) .
A popular read on the British Red Cross website titled “Charity really does begin at home” tackles what it calls the myth that the organization raises money for disasters overseas but doesn’t spend enough at home.
With major appeals for Syria and the Philippines typhoon well advertised all over the web and in cities across the country, it is understandable why one would think that, the Red Cross blog says.
However, there are reasons why the charity operates as it does: a general funding pot already in place for emergencies at home, like the Somerset floods, and the fact that the cost of their operations in England and Wales will cost a fraction of what is needed, for example, when a major catastrophe hits disaster-prone areas in developing countries.
“Terrible as the floods have been for all those involved, the actual cost of all our work there will be tens of thousands of pounds, which we can afford from our general funds.”
Tanner also argued that there are plenty of other places the government can get flood relief money from, like the Treasury’s contingency budget. And the European Union expressed its perplexity on Wednesday at why Britain has not applied for cash from the EU Solidarity Fund, when even wealthy Germany did so in 2002.
My best guess is that, politically, the government would find it a bit awkward to do that, at a time when the UK is talking about major changes in the EU treaties and some in government are considering quitting the EU.
One thing everyone seemed to agree on was the government’s inefficiency and lack of preparedness in tackling the floods: Too little, too late, and too slow.
Prime Minister David Cameron is now facing pressure after announcing the government would spend whatever was needed to help those affected by the floods.
His opponents are asking where the money will come from, given that Cameron has ruled out touching the foreign aid budget and that his pledge is in sharp contrast with the government’s rigid austerity policy.
I feel that one very important question is being left out of the political debate, but is also not being asked enough by ordinary people. This is: these floods are the very real consequences of climate change. How will we cope in the future? How are we going to make sure that events like this don’t catch us unprepared next time?