In the middle of government cutbacks and a Budget just about to happen, I've seen quite a few comments asking why the overseas aid budget is protected. I very much hope that George Osborne has the courage to resist the pressures to cut it back. My first letter to an MP about that issue was back in the 1989s, when Chris Patton had the overseas development brief. My MP, Jim Lester, was very interested and concerned in the matter, took it up with him, and I have a signed letter from Chris Patton explaining the government's position, which at that time was losing ground on achieving the 0.7% of gross national income as an aid budget target.
No doubt some aid goes astray. Some will find its way to corrupt officials, and certainly some aid has been mis-spent on infrastructure projects that nobody wanted except the western contractors that built them. However, mistakes can be learned from, and errors don't mean the system is wrong in principle.
What concerns me is that the budget is vulnerable to a lot of pressure groups, ranging from "charity begins at home", through free market arguments that it's best to let the market decide, through to a kind of anti-foreign standpoint. They are likely to be populist (as indicated by some polling) but I think they are wrong.
The first reason is that the international community has a commitment to this target via the UN. Only a few countries meet it, and some are shamefully short of it. However, abandoning this would be an acceptance that the richest nations of the world (and we are one) have no obligation to the poorest (some of whom supply the raw materials we rely on for our prosperity). If the UK abandons its commitment, it effectively gives permission for other nations to do likewise.
Second, a commitment to aid is what some have called "enlightened self-interest". It's not a very selfless principle morally, but the argument is essentially as follows. Failure to provide aid to acute needs will lead to conflicts, mass movements of people and huge refugee camps. Sooner or later [expensive] intervention will be required to stop this spilling over borders and spreading instability, potentially to the developed world's frontiers. Aid therefore can be a relatively cheap way of heading off disasters, which would otherwise cost us more in the long run. Aid can also benefit the economies of developing countries. As they grow and develop, they will become new markets for products manufactured or developed in the west, so it's good for business and exports too.
But for me as a Christian, it's just a lot simpler than that. Responsibility to neighbour isn't just about the people you can see around you; it's an obligation to all who are in need. We have lots of challenges ahead in our own country - that's a certainty. But if we abandon those in even greater and profound need around the world, something has gone acutely wrong. Comic Relief raised well over £70 million this year, split between UK and African causes. I think that's enough evidence to show that when faced with the issues and needs, there is enough charity at home to help people in need far away.
Time for an out-of-context quote from Mrs Thatcher for the Chancellor "don't go wobbly, George".