Concerns about overseas aid are all too easily dismissable as deplorable expressions of regressive right-wing politics or, worse, outright racism.
That there may be such shades of opinion lurking behind some recent criticisms of taxpayers’ money, expected to be about £11 billion this year, that the UK government spends on foreign aid does not mean, however, that it is illegitimate to ask whether this money is being spent wisely or efficiently.
The primary purpose of overseas aid is altruistic – that Britain, being a rich country, gives some of its wealth to alleviate poverty in poor countries. Some of these countries were formerly part of the British empire, but the aid given to them should not be regarded as salving an imperial guilty conscience. Apart from humanitarian emergencies, such as drought causing famine, aid should be about helping countries to grow their economies so their people become less poor and less in need of aid.
This purpose becomes a lot harder to discern, however, when the governments of some of these countries are undemocratic, or corrupt, or both. Nevertheless, there is still an argument in these circumstances that poverty-stricken people who have the misfortune to live under a corrupt oligarchy should not be penalised for their bad luck.
These arguments become all the harder to make when UK citizens’ own incomes are being squeezed and their public services are being cut. Austerity at home creates a ready audience for complaints about apparently lavish spending abroad, such as the clamour which has been raised regarding the £250 million or so a year that Britain donates to Nigeria when that country is spending much more than that on developing its own space programme.
On a lesser scale, but also questionable, is the £2.7m a year which Britain spends on the 48 inhabitants of Pitcairn Island, one of the few remaining British colonies or overseas territories. The islanders are utterly dependent on this money; without it, they would either have to leave or die.
Yet it also seems that some £250,000 was spent on developing a renewable energy system for Pitcairn before the whole project was abandoned without a single wind turbine or solar cell being provided. While the UK government maintains that its aid programmes are rigorously assessed for effectiveness, this rather argues that the scrutiny is nowhere near rigorous enough.
The lesson for UK ministers ought to be clear. The majority of taxpayers are happy to see some of their taxes spent on overseas aid, but they also expect such money to be well and wisely spent. Aid programmes should be transparent with the outcomes clearly detailed.
When there is such openness, then such drivel as the Bongo-Bongoland nonsense spouted by Ukip MEP Godfrey Bloom will be much more clearly seen to be the reactionary rubbish that it is.
Pregnant paws for thought
This could be the year of headline-grabbing births. First came George Alexander Louis (first son of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, in case you have forgotten) and now there is the prospect of a baby panda at Edinburgh Zoo. Or it that taking things too far? Well, judging by the way panda-fever has gripped Scotland, there are certainly some people equally
excited by both.
Of course, we might be getting ahead of ourselves, but it does seem that there are solid indications that Tian Tian may be pregnant, artificial insemination perhaps having succeeded where nature and Yang Guang failed.
It seems that Mrs Panda has passed three pregnancy tests – a change in hormone levels, alterations in protein concentrations and the appearance of moodiness and nesting behaviour. The reliability of these tests is still questionable, and it may still turn out to be a phantom pregnancy.
But, touch wood, perhaps within a month the world’s media will descend on Edinburgh to record the first birth of a panda in the UK, although we probably won’t see it until January. There will be a myriad of questions. Who is the dad – Mr Panda at the zoo, or a usurper called Bao Bao who also contributed, let us say, to the artificial insemination.
And if the latter turns out to be the case, how will Yang Guang react? Will he be grumpy and hostile, or warm and generous? How will the offspring be named? When will we see baby panda? Will Tian Tian be a good mum?
It could even be twins! How exciting would that be!? But let’s not count our pandas before they are hatched, or more accurately born, says Chris West, the zoo’s chief executive, and he’s right. But fingers crossed. Here’s hoping.