Bishop of Truro warns against seeing aid as only a financial investment

Bishop of TruroOn the 3rd July 2017, the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton contributed to Baroness D’Souza’s debate: That this House takes note of the case for measuring the impact of the United Kingdom’s development aid budget. In a wide-ranging speech, the Bishop spoke of the importance of guarding against thinking about aid spending simply as a financial investment.

The Lord Bishop of Truro: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, for initiating this debate on such a very important and topical issue.

As no doubt we will hear from other speakers, the UK is known around the world as a leader in international development. It has achieved great results during the past two decades. I have no doubt of the importance of the case for measuring the impact of our development aid. I want to underline that case and also, perhaps more importantly for me, to ensure that we try to measure the right things if we can and do not understand aid only as a financial investment which can be measured simply in financial terms. I fear that too many people in our debate will go immediately from talking about aid to talking about money and finances rather than going back and thinking about what the word “development” might mean. It seems that development is in itself a fascinating idea in our world today with perhaps an assumption that other countries are less developed than we are. We must be careful about the assumptions and presuppositions we make when we use the word.

For more than 40 years, the Church of England has campaigned for the UK to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid and has applauded the commitment made by the Government back in 2013. Despite pressure to drop aid spending, it has been reassuring to see that all the major political parties have again recognised its importance and continued with the commitment to allocate 0.7% of our GNI to overseas aid.

Aid is not expensive. It costs the average taxpayer less than £1 a week to support some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world. This money can be used effectively to prevent the arrival of larger and more expensive problems further down the line, again showing the difficulties around how we measure impacts. The Church sees the benefits of aid money through its extensive international links. The Anglican communion is one of the largest international networks and has supported DfID over the years effectively to channel money into the poorest communities worldwide when other avenues are not available. Church networks complement the work of the aid agencies and are often able to reach further, especially in areas of conflict or where natural disasters have disrupted established communication and infrastructure links.

When I served as the Bishop of Sherborne, I had the privilege to visit what was then Sudan in my capacity as chair of the Salisbury Sudan Link. I was able to visit several areas of both Sudan and what is now South Sudan, which sadly is covered by people fleeing the continuing and terrible violence. Tribalism and poverty make for a toxic cocktail. Almost 3.5 million innocent people in South Sudan have been forced from their homes and are desperately in need of food, safety and hope. Christian Aid is partnering with the Episcopal Church of Sudan and South Sudan and other local partners to provide for the practical needs of some of the most vulnerable.

Back in February, when famine was officially declared, the UK Government announced substantial funding for humanitarian relief in the form of food, clean water and healthcare. Without that aid, and the work of agencies such as Christian Aid and their local partners, the situation for many of those affected would be even more unbearable. I was delighted to see today that the Minister of State, the right honourable Alistair Burt, is out in Myanmar seeing at first hand how our aid money is supporting vaccination programmes and farming communities. In the previous coalition, we saw the Government promoting the positive stories about UK Aid Direct, and we need to see more of this. Of course, it is not perfect and there is always room for improvement, but there is a great deal to be proud of and to build on. Despite what we read in some of the more populist press, aid has high levels of support in this country and needs to be seen as a positive contribution to the world, especially in the new climate of Brexit in which we currently find ourselves.

Our changing climate is also one of the biggest factors shaping the future for many of the world’s poorest people. It is affecting everything from harvests to clean water, causing drought and extreme floods and the spread of diseases. One important way we can use aid is to boost access to clean energy, especially given that nearly 1.1 billion people in the world still have no access to electricity. Without power in schools, hospitals and businesses, it is very difficult to combat poverty. In sub-Saharan Africa, around 70% of people have no access to electricity—80% in rural areas. It is important that we ensure access to energy for people, but also ensure that it is clean energy so that we do not contribute towards increasing climate change—another example of how complicated it is to assess impact.

It is my belief that aid should continue to focus first and foremost on poverty reduction and the alleviation of suffering, and not be diverted by, for instance, security or other geopolitical considerations. Of course it is right that we develop the right measures for the impact of our aid investment and improve it all the time so that every penny is spent as effectively as possible. However, I question how we do that and what measures we can use. As a framework, the sustainable development goals are very useful for this. I would like to know how the Government propose to deliver the SDGs at home and overseas. I ask the Minister: what will the Government do differently to meet the new SDGs and will they regularly report to Parliament on their progress?

There are other ways UK aid can be made even more effective. Not all UK aid meets the highest transparency and effectiveness standards. Regardless of which department spends it, these standards should be met. Will the Government continue to commit themselves to transparency and accountability, especially when other departments spend DfID money, as other noble Lords have mentioned?

There is already much to affirm and encourage in the UK’s response to the needs of the world’s poorest people. We must not, however, be complacent: there are pressures from many directions on the levels of aid, how it is spent, and, as we are debating, how we can assess impacts. The UK must not pull back from its leadership role; if anything we should aim even higher, demonstrating to our G7 and G20 partners that it is possible to meet our international commitments. It is a question of morality, justice and basic humanity.

My final point is that talk of impact should not always assume we are considering money or financial aid. I fear we live in very individualistic times and our society is more and more atomised. If we are not careful, we equate development aid simply to financial benefits or losses. Development aid in fact should mean that we all consider what it means to achieve development. We are partners with others around the world and part of the impact we measure should be what effect other people and places have on us. I mentioned the privilege I had of travelling on several occasions to Sudan and South Sudan. The real need in South Sudan is for help in governance and capacity.

There is an undeniable case for measuring the impact of our development aid, but it should not be a measure simply in numbers or focusing on only financial investment. It must be a measure that understands the sophisticated issues behind development and the interdependence at the heart of working with others.

Baroness Verma (Con): My Lords, I join all noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, on securing the debate. It is a great honour to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro. I agree with him that this is not just about measuring aid in financial terms. However, most of the data we collect have to have an output somewhere—and, as often as not, it is measured in financial terms.

Earl of Sandwich (CB): It was good to hear from the right reverend Prelate—Bishop Tim, as we remember him in Sherborne—especially hearing him talk about the importance of climate change, but we are primarily concerned with development aid.

Baroness Sheehan (LD): The first is in respect of the policy on energy, an issue referred to quite extensively by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro. DfID is doing some good work on ensuring clean energy access for people in developing countries. However, at the same time the UK Government overall have spent more on fossil fuel projects in developing countries than on renewable energy projects. This needs to change as it is counterintuitive to help developing countries to mitigate against and adapt to climate change but to fund so many fossil fuel projects as well.

Lord Bates (Con): Just last week, I returned from South Sudan. I was delighted to hear the analysis and the experiences of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro. I saw the terrible situation there. Were it not for the World Food Programme and DfID’s contribution to that, 1.6 million people who are relying on airdrops of food, through a completely man-made conflict—this is not to do with climate change but entirely to do with the civil war which is raging on the ground—would have their lives put at risk. Therefore, to say that you can somehow separate the security dimension from the humanitarian dimension is not correct.

The right reverend Prelate also spoke about what churches could be doing in this area. I will be meeting him tomorrow. Again, I turn to the example of South Sudan. When I was in South Sudan, I met Archbishop Deng—a very gracious man—the Archbishop of South Sudan and Sudan. There are 100,000 churches in South Sudan. What an incredible network that we could be using for peace and reconciliation. I also met Bishop Anthony Poggo, who I am sure is well known to the right reverend Prelate.


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