Daniel Bruce is the Chief Executive of Transparency International UK.
New evidence, revealed in recent days suggested that 7.5 per cent of World Bank development aid is quickly diverted into secret offshore tax havens. This comes against the backdrop of the cyclically heated debate about Britain’s own foreign aid budget, and the very existence of the Department for International Development – seemingly spared the prospect of being merged back in to the Foreign Office, for now.
There are strident and deeply held views on either side of this debate. Those who passionately defend Britain’s role as a global leader in humanitarian assistance and poverty reduction – and those who vocally demand the end to overseas aid in order to spend those resources on causes ‘closer to home’
This debate can be all too binary and laced with anger. And we should be angry – but not if that anger is simply driven by dogma about aid.
We should be angry that we need an aid budget at all. Angry that on one side of the globe there are entrepreneurs wringing their hands about our lack of progress in offering tourist trips to the moon – whilst their fellow human beings elsewhere on this planet remain condemned to a life sentence of abject poverty through no fault of their own. Failed by their own governments and an international system that still struggles to solve their plight.
To have a balanced and informed debate about the future of international aid, we need to talk about the underlying causes and drivers of poverty and instability. To do that, we need to talk about corruption; all too often the elephant in the room in this conversation.
Take terrorism, armed conflict and mass displacement of people; routine daily headlines in one form or another. What doesn’t make it into the news, however, is the role of corruption as a trigger for some of the biggest humanitarian crises of our times, like the wars in Syria and Yemen, the rise of Isis and Boko Haram in Nigeria and of Al Shabab in Kenya.
By perpetuating poverty and injustice, and draining public resources, corrupt governments, leaders and their networks create the conditions for conflict and extremism to thrive. And corruption strikes twice in conflict: hiding behind the shield of national security, corruption in defence governance only services to perpetuate instability.
There are serious and direct consequences for the UK even though these horrors take place thousands of miles away.
First, the UK’s aid budget is called on to support innocent victims of these conflicts, and to prop up fragile states for fear of even grimmer scenarios.
Second, the resulting failed states create breeding grounds for international extremists, whilst their citizens flee seeking a better life, often in Europe. Therefore, it would better serve our national interest to focus increased aid resources on prevention rather than cure.
On the subject of cures, the UK now spends £1 billion on global health. However, the World Health Organisation has calculated that more than seven per cent of total expenditure (500 billion US dollars) from all donors is lost annually to corruption in global health. That includes stolen medicines, bribes determining where hospitals are built, bogus treatments or pharmaceutical price fixing.
Yet far too little is done to prevent it. The aid cash pours into hospitals and medicines with the prevention of corruption or waste in the system barely a footnote in too many global health strategies. A hundred and forty thousand children die every year as a result of corruption in global health.
So where do we go from here? It would be morally repugnant, if not strategically unwise, for the UK and other international aid donors to suddenly withdraw funding for health care, education and other vital services that recipient countries can’t yet pay for; instability would increase, lives would be lost and the poorest in global society would be punished all over again.
But that shouldn’t mean we avoid the tough questions about the path to reduced aid dependency and the barriers to self-sufficiency. Corruption tends to top the list.
Let’s start to use Britain’s aid budget with ever-increasing intelligence that ramps up the search for solutions, stops the flows of dirty money out of poor countries and, one day, negates the need for international aid to foot the bill for vital public services.
In so doing, we need to clamp down on the ability of the corrupt, including those from countries which receive UK aid, to launder and hide their ill-gotten gains in Britain and its off shore territories. While the UK has taken steps to tackle these pathways, there’s still more to be done.
Over the next few weeks, our new Government will be gearing up for an integrated, strategic level review which will determine UK foreign, security and development policy priorities in the coming years. If Britain is to get the maximum return on its aid and is to benefit from a more stable, secure and prosperous world, then ambitious measures to tackle corruption need to feature prominently across the board.
This should be the UK’s moment to step up as a global leader in the fight against corruption – a fight that will benefit both the UK and many millions of people around the world.