The merger of the Department for International Development (DFID) into the Foreign Office was one of those worst kept secrets, a case of when not if. In effect it’s a bit of restricting, a bit of musical chairs.
Of greater importance than what departments exist in government, is the effectiveness of their objectives. This means answering questions including
- Do we actually have the right objectives?
- Are we measuring them correctly?
- Are we meeting them?
And I want to suggest that this is a confused picture when it comes to International Aid. It is always going to be a confused picture because large organisations including multinational corporations and governments have their own agendas when it comes to aid. They may try to keep them separate but there is a risk that the political priorities of a government get muddled in with the aid priorities. At least if the Foreign Office runs international development then there is more transparency about the fact that aid is soft power diplomacy through other means.
So, what should the aim of international aid be? Well I assume that it should to be around supporting initiatives that reduce poverty, improve access to education, develop better health care and support conservation of the environment. Those all sound like reasonable aims.
So, then, the only real measure you are interested in is whether or not those things are happening effectively. You will want to know if our aid budget has contributed to that and so you will be looking to measure signs of improvement wherever investment is happening. You may also want to monitor other places in the world to identify where there is a greater need for aid or where our resources can be used more effectively.
There is something else that we might be interested in. We might be interested in how generous and compassionate people are in the UK. Do we have a concern for the needs of the wider world and are we prepared to act to help support those needs.
At this point, you will realise that hitting a target of 0.7% of GDP in the Government’s aid budget is quite a meaningless measure. It does not tell us how effective the aid has been at supporting development, other measures tell you that. It just tells you that the Government has hit a spending target, and quite a relative one at that. If GDP goes down during a recession, we get closer to the target without actually spending anymore.
But it is not even a measure of our compassion and involvement because there are so many other ways in which our society can be engaged in aid and development through businesses, NGOS and individual charitable giving. In fact, sometimes giving through church based charities can be more effective at getting support directly on the ground through local churches in context.
We should be more concerned about seeing a more generous and loving society than we are about meeting targets. However, there is only one way that can happen and that is as people’s lives are transformed by the Gospel otherwise we risk just supporting aid to virtue signal and feel better about ourselves.
Whatever we think about he closing of one government department and its merger into another, whether for or against, I hope this will encourage a proper conversation about the place of aid in todays’ society. This should include questions about why we offer aid and charity, what are our motives, what are the most effective ways of helping others and what part do such things play in the mission of the church.