This week the government abolished the foreign aid ministry, the Department for International Development (DFID), and merged it with the Foreign Office. Its work – and its budget – has now been subsumed into that department’s work promoting the UK’s interests overseas, through trade and diplomacy.
Simultaneously, rumours have started that the Chancellor is planning to slash the foreign aid budget (worth about £15 billion a year and legally set at 0.7 per cent of gross national income) in order to pay off some of the domestic debt incurred in the Treasury’s coronavirus response.
Alright, DFID wasn’t perfect. Not every penny was spent completely wisely, or always in the right place – but, show me a department in government that doesn’t make those mistakes sometimes, be it in the areas of health, education or defence.
Over the years, the targeting, effectiveness and scrutiny of DFID spending has improved deliberately and dramatically. The purpose of DFID, and of the foreign aid budget, has been to promote sustainable development and eliminate world poverty. To trim that budget and divert it towards the Chancellor’s desperate hunt behind the sofa for cash would be disgusting, wouldn’t it?
Britain is still the fifth richest country in the world – are we seriously thinking about taking money from the poorest people on the planet in order to balance the budget? Are we really OK with nicking from someone’s begging bowl in order pay the restaurant bill?
Of course, we have serious problems that need to be urgently addressed in the UK; of poverty, rising unemployment and people at risk of losing their homes. But my experience is that those who are meanspirited about the recipients of overseas aid, tend not – in practice – to be brimming over with the milk of human kindness towards the ‘domestic needy’. You either love your neighbour or your you don’t.
Yes, our economy is in recession, and a government in trouble wants to be seen to be looking after its own. But in seeking to present that image, it sends a message that Britain is becoming insular, heartless, irrelevant…and just a bit ugly.
Indeed there is a clear Biblical underpinning for a far more generous and compassionate response. We all know the lesson of the parable of the Good Samaritan: our neighbour is our fellow human, regardless of their skin colour, tribe or homeland. We are all made in God’s image, an honour which brings with it an inherent dignity and equality.
We are instructed to look after the orphan and the widow, and to provide for those who are in need. Ok, perhaps we may secretly think that some of these people don’t deserve it, but Christ’s gift of grace on the cross offers us salvation that none of us deserves but is nevertheless freely given.
This is one of those issues that Christians should be writing to their MPs about. We ought to be genuinely upset that people in desperate need are having support withdrawn, and we should question the motivations and priorities of those who lead us if they are willing to turn their backs on the poorest in our world in order to shore up their own political ratings.
Tim Farron is the MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale and former leader of the Liberal Democrats
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