Foreign Aid – The Understated Achievement

Politicians aren’t typically shy of mentioning their achievements, particularly in the build up to an election. Therefore, it’s pretty peculiar that in the build up to the general election next month, there has been little reference to the UK finally achieving it’s 0.7% of gross national income commitment to foreign aid.

Unfortunately, it seems like this is quite an embarrassing success. One which has been kept on the down low, presumably in the fear that UKIP will seize upon this as an example of reckless spending which doesn’t benefit the British people.

In the ongoing election campaigns, UKIP have been the most vocal about their policies relating to foreign aid. UKIP would seek to significantly reduce foreign aid and ensure that all aid work carried out is contracted to British companies.

Ironically, contracting out aid work to British companies would be likely to increase the requirements for foreign aid in the long term. See, the majority of aid spending in developing countries seeks to increase the capacity of the local labour force, to equip developing countries for long-term development. By handing these contracts to British companies, there is relatively little skill sharing and developing countries becoming dependent on skilled labour from other countries.

In contrast to UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and some members of the Labour party have expressed commitment to diverting 0.7% of British gross national income to foreign aid. The Conservatives have tried to talk about foreign aid as little as possible; presumably as it’s caused quite a division within the party and they’re at the biggest risk of losing votes to UKIP.

UK Foreign Aid Too High


I accept that when I defend foreign aid, I’m probably rather biased. I’ve also learned over the past couple of years that when I defend foreign aid, I’m also increasingly in a minority. However, I really struggle to understand the perception of people who feel that foreign aid is a waste of money.

The two main arguments against foreign aid presented by UKIP seem to be that UK government spending should help British people and that foreign aid doesn’t really work. I’m all for cynicism surrounding spending on foreign aid, as I am with any government spending given the need to ensure that all government spending is responsible and efficient. However, it’s becoming a little concerning to read the same criticisms, which are often unjust.

UK Government Spending Should Help British People

Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that government spending on International Development is somewhere around about 2-2.5% of total government spending.[1] I recently read an interesting statistic from America, in which those questioned estimated that 25% of spending was directed towards foreign aid.[2] If Britain is comparable to America in this sense, perhaps some of the resentment towards foreign aid is due to the perception that spending on foreign aid is greater than it actually is. Indeed, in the same study in America, individuals thought that 10% of spending being diverted to foreign aid would be reasonable, when in fact the real figure was around 1%.[3] This suggests that people value foreign aid, as long as it isn’t to the detriment of domestic spending.

US Foreign Aid Perceptions


Secondly, who’s to say that foreign aid doesn’t help Britain? The development of other countries can quite easily lead to benefits in the UK. Whether this is due to investment opportunities overseas, access to cheaper and better quality imports or innovation, which is mutually beneficial. Not everything has to happen within British borders to be beneficial to British people… If a scientist in a developing country finds a cure for a disease, it benefits British people, so why not help to open doors in other countries so that they can work towards human advancement alongside the UK?

Related to this, development helps to tackle issues being faced in Britain, such as terrorism. It’s far more difficult for terrorist organisations to recruit in an area where people are able to access education and have good opportunities.

Foreign Aid Doesn’t Work

Since beginning to work in international development, I have seen many instances of foreign aid which doesn’t work and some that even makes issues worse. However, I have seen far more cases of foreign aid doing a great deal of good.

Some justifications as to why people have the perception that foreign aid doesn’t work are reasons such as; aid increases dependency of beneficiaries, aid is unsustainable in the long term and the funds end up in the hands of corrupt governments.

I’m not going to argue that any of these justifications are never true, as they are symptoms of poorly coordinated foreign aid. However, having spent many long days on applications to receive funding from the UK Government, it’s difficult to see how any ill conceived proposals could slip through the net. In order to receive funding, a project proposal needs to be absolutely spot on.

The arguments above are reasons as to why you should look into which charities you support, to ensure that you only support those which are coordinating their projects responsibly. However, in terms of government spending on foreign aid, you can be fairly certain that funds are being spent in a responsible manner.

Below is some data which has been extracted from DFID’s Annual Report. The sheer number of people who have been reached by programmes funded by UK taxpayers goes a great way towards dispelling the idea that foreign aid doesn’t work.

DFID Achievements


It is positive for the sector that standards are routinely questioned. The only way to ensure that funds earmarked for aid are spent effectively is for them to be opened up to the scrutiny of the public.

Whilst the threat of UKIP to slash foreign aid seems to be founded on misplaced arguments, the fact remains that UKIP are reflecting the opinion of a significant proportion of the population.

The population is holding such an opinion at a time when government spending on foreign aid is, by and large, administered effectively. This suggests that not only does the foreign aid sector have to ensure aid is administered effectively, but we also need to be communicate successes and failures effectively to ensure that the general public and the politicians representing them are confident in the ability of the sector.

[1] Endless government spending statistics can be found here, but after a few calculations it seemed reasonable to conclude that International Development spending is somewhere around about the 2-2.5% mark.



Featured Image from The Daily Telegraph.


Communities Combine: Shared Knowledge Speeds Up Development

As COCO partner rural communities, we’re used to operating in areas well off the beaten track. In rural areas, basic building materials can suffer inflated prices due to the high transport cost and their scarce supply in the area. With this in mind, it is often necessary to be innovative to keep construction costs down.

Last year, COCO supported the Maasai Academy in Olorte, Kenya towards the construction of a kitchen. As the name suggests, the Maasai Academy is located in Maasailand with Olorte happening to be in a particularly remote corner!

The dusty and rocky ground of Olorte doesn’t lend itself to the manufacture of traditional bricks and the difficult roads make transporting bricks from elsewhere a laborious process. Therefore, in order to manufacture a good quality kitchen at reasonable cost, it was necessary to be resourceful.

Olorte walls going up

COCO’s partners in Olorte are Red Tribe, an organisation who are operating within the Maasai community to promote development through education, health and entrepreneurism. When constructing the kitchen at Maasai Academy, Red Tribe trialled a method which involved sewing an old maize sack into three chambers. The two outer chambers were filled with sand, dirt and whatever else was lying around and the middle chamber was left empty to enable the bags to stack together snugly.

The bags were piled high before the structure was plastered. No one would ever know that some old maize sacks had been used in the construction! Each maize sack cost 23 Kenyan Shillings (approximately 16 pence) and the building required 800 sacks giving a total cost of 18,400KES (£128); far cheaper the anticipated cost of using stones in the construction, but equally as sturdy!

Having visited Olorte late in 2014, George Odhiambo, who is coordinating the development of Mercy Primary School in Mbita was taken aback by the simplicity and effectiveness of the technique.

George is now aiming to use the construction technique for a new administration block at Mercy Primary. Last week, George returned to Olorte with two fundis (contractors) to observe the construction of Red Tribe’s new beadwork building, which is being constructed using the same method. The beadwork building will be used for the manufacture of jewellery by the Maasai community, which generates income and will sustain the longer-term development of Olorte.

2015 01 George Mbita LP (3)George explained that the visit was successful; “I was delighted that the fundis learnt the process very fast. They were so mesmerised by the method of
building and agreed that the earth bag building is cost effective and does not require a lot of skilled work.”

“We agreed to have a model similar to the beadwork building in Olorte, which will be cost-effective, simple to construct and will allow us to construct the administration block at Mercy Primary quickly!”

If you wish to see the eco-bricks at Maasai Academy, take part in our Maasai Cycle Challenge, which visits the school en route! Spaces remain for the September 2015 and January 2016 challenges, email for more details.