I hear regular comments about charity beginning at home. They often suggest raiding the foreign aid budget for such and such a domestic project that needs cash. The current cry is to support flood victims and build better flood defences.
Well, I’m all in favour of helping flood victims and building better defences. We should do both of those. Sadly, a lot of victims do not have adequate insurance. It would be good to see more local authorities following the lead of Rochdale and offering cash assistance. Although the best help would be to reduce the impact of flooding.
Part of the problem is plainly (plain to those who are willing to see) to do with climate change. It has become apparent that we have brought this on ourselves by our profligate use of natural resources. I’m all for doing something about that and reducing reliance on fossil fuels, but it isn’t going to happen overnight. We have to accept the onset of climate change and make appropriate plans.
We’ve known about this for years. The way government ministers talk, all togged up in their wellies and knee deep in flood water, you’d think the present floods were a big surprise. Yet report after report has told government that climate change is happening, and that it is essential to deal with increased flood risk. Reports have said that defences are not even being adequately maintained, yet projects have been cancelled. Damage to homes gets the publicity and is tragic for the victims, but huge tracts of agricultural land are vulnerable to flooding. This includes much of our richest and most productive land in the east of England, which is threatened by the sea.
So there’s no doubt that a nit picking debate about whether spending is slightly higher or slightly lower is missing the point. Substantially more money needs to be spent on flood defences, both for homes and for farmland. Oh, and it’s about time we stopped building houses on flood plains, the location for many planned developments.
Should cash for flood defences come out of the foreign aid budget? Emphatically not. We are a rich country and we could, with political will, all live comfortable lives and pay for all the flood defences that we need. It’s the political will that is lacking, not the cash. For the moment, we are stuck with a government that is dogmatically committed to undermining public services and spending the proceeds on tax cuts that benefit the better off.
While I am as committed as anyone to raising standards for people here, that should not stop us from looking at the awful disparities that exist internationally. As long as thousands of children die from malnutrition every single day I do not believe that we should be cutting foreign aid. It is both a humanitarian duty and a practical obligation. It is practical because we want foreigners to buy our expensive manufactures and we want them to thrive in their own countries.
There is, of course, the objection that foreign aid is not well spent. A lot of it never gets abroad, it is spent on consultants in the UK, or on British goods and services. Some is hijacked by corruption. Certainly we should do everything we can to make foreign aid as effective as possible and to get it to the most needy recipients. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for not giving it at all.
Money could easily be available to deal with many of our domestic problems, to help flood victims and to build better flood defences, while also maintaining foreign aid. We should be doing all of those, not trading one off against another.