By Alex Brummer, Vice President
Few areas of public spending by the British government are as controversial as the foreign aid programme.
At a time of austerity the government’s commitment to ring fence development spending and adhere to the United Nations commitment to devote 0.7 per cent of national output to the Department for International Development is a source of great rancour.
In cash terms only the United States is a bigger donor among the advanced countries, but in percentage terms Britain leads the field Current UK spending plans envisage a budget of £11.1 billion for 2015-16. That is more money than is spent on the core services of the Home Office and almost as much as is devoted to transport.
In terms of global influence the ‘soft power’ of Britain’s foreign assistance it could be argued far outweighs anything the diplomacy of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office does. In the Middle-East in particular Dfid is enormously important. Britain is the second largest donor to the United Nations Works & Relief Agency (UNWRA) that is hugely important in Gaza and the West Bank. It is also a powerful donor to the Palestinian Authority. In recent times it has poured funding into helping educate and shelter the refugees from the Syrian civil war seeking shelter in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
Under the leadership of the current Secretary of State Justine Greening, a former accountant, Dfid has placed a much greater focus on better procurement and working with business. It is also devoting more resources to immediate humanitarian support rather than longer term economic development. At present it is focusing on the impact of three separate crises the aftermath of ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in Gaza, the ebola epidemic in Africa and the fall-out from the Syrian civil war and Isis.
British support for the work of Unwra, the only United Nation agency devoted to a single cause in the shape of caring for Palestinian refugees and their descendants, remains undimmed. This despite the fact that some UNWRA facilities, that were used to protect civilian populations during the conflict of last summer, are being investigated because they allegedly were used to shelter Hamas weaponry.
Britain insists that it carefully monitors the money it funnels into UNWRA and other causes in Gaza to make sure that it goes to the alleviation of poverty and economic development and bypasses Gaza’s Hamas administration. DFID maintains that Gaza is one of the most aid dependent areas in the world largely because it has endured irregular water, power and connections to the outside world partly because of Israeli government policy. At the recent Gaza reconstruction conference Dfid pledged a further £20 million in addition to the resources it already pours into Gaza.
Dfid also is a big player on the West Bank where it views itself as being in the forefront of the effort to create a viable Palestinian state capable of being part of the favoured solution of a two-state solution to the core Middle East dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. Its most direct contribution to this is the funding of the pay for Palestinian civil servants on the West Bank.
This cash has become a cause celebre in the Commons because some of it is said to find its way to the families of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails in the shape of ‘honour payments.’ Dfid argues that this is not surprising given research showing that some 70 per cent of Palestinians have a family member that at some time has been arrested by Israel.
As part of its role in the region the British government, through Dfid, also seeks to promote pluralism by funding non-governmental organisations that are often critical of the Jewish state such as Bet’selem.
As an advanced economy, a member of the Paris-based OECD, Israel itself receives no Dfid assistance even though sections of its population including the Bedouin and parts of the Charedi population are regarded by the International Monetary Fund as economically deprived.
In of itself the use of British taxpayers funds to ease deprivation among Palestinian refugees through UNWRA and support for creating a proper administration on the West Bank in preparation for statehood should not be a problem. It only becomes one if cash – which is fungible – finds its way from genuinely deserving causes into the wrong hands. That is the constant dilemma which all foreign aid providers confront.
Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail