RDN on aid on BBC Big Questions

The British state is right to have a growing international aid budget. How on earth could a screaming right-winger argue this? Well, BBC1’s  Big Questions asked my opinion on the matter and I surprised myself thus….

In a nutshell, here were the pieces of the argument: 

(1) Aid has often been wasted. The Coalition ought to be defining and delivering a hard-headed aid regime.

(2) The middle and upper classes pay most of the UK’s taxes: if they want an aid package, that’s fine.

(3) The UK needs a widespread global footprint: our soldiers, diplomats and aid workers make a great presence.

(4) Aid should help private education in India; build civil society in Cambodia; fund government in Lesotho.

(5) UK kids should be shamed about what they do with £5000 pa of schooling against Africans with £10’s.

(6) Lots of us are too mean to give to charity, but we don’t mind paying a bit on our tax bills.

(7) The UK can maintain a canny aid department, and deal with governments around the world.

(8) DFID ought to be robust and unsentimental and accountable (unlike charities).

(9) The world is becoming more asymmetrical: an aid programme keeps us in touch.

(10) DFID is a Guardian-reading outfit: it needs more Times readers.

It”s interesting to unpick the argument that aid is a matter of poor people in rich countries giving money to rich people in poor countries.

For a start, the IFS say that the bottom fifth of earners in the UK are net beneficiaries of the tax system to the tune of about £2,000 a year whilst the top fifth are net contributors to the tune of about £24,000. So it is possible to argue that the poor ought to shut their traps on tax matters and leave them to those who really cough up. I know: you can pick holes in that logic, but it’s not awful and needs to be on the table.

Secondly, whilst it’s true that much aid is pilfered by elites, not all is. And anyway, the alternative approach (concentrate on poverty reduction and the poorest of the poor) can be curiously wasteful, too. The very poor are hard to reach and the best good in poor countries may come in empowering the middle and capitalist classes.

Thirdly, whilst many people seem to tell pollsters that aid is not a priority, the politics of the matter suggests that it remains attractive to voters. It is in the manifesto of all mainstream parties. I think this means that “nudge economics”, or “nudge politics”, is at work here. (A reminder: Save the Children reminded us that in 2010 the UK gave about 1 percent of tax income to aid. Labour doubled our commitment to aid and it’s on track to be about 0.7 percent of GNI in 2013, as in line with UN commitments.)

Fourthly, aid may be attractive to the poor. After all, it is widely reported that the poor give a higher percentage of their earnings to charities than do the rich. (Of course, the poors’ mite adds up to much less in absolute terms, and the rich may well feel well-tapped by the state anyway). Point is: the poor may be as keen on aid as the rich.


I was not at all surprised. In fact, in view of your right wing views, I would have been more surprised if you hadn't been in favour of International Aid. **** It”s interesting to unpick the argument that aid is a matter of poor people in rich countries giving money to rich people in poor countries.[sic] **** You haven't unpicked anything. All you have done is to expound some of the fallacies of right wing economics. But then you don't have access to the analytical tools that I have, such as the MH Equivalence Principle, backed up by rigorous logic, etc.... Please agree to ensure that my comments on each of your points are read in the same context as yours, and let us see where that leads us. By the way, the UK economy is not heading for a double dip recession - it is heading for a full blown depression. Remember that you heard it first here, or did you?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Publication date

05 March 2011