International aid will be even more important to our future trade success after Brexit

International aid will be even more important to our future trade success after Brexit

Before entering Parliament in 2010 I had spent my entire adult life in business – starting, nurturing then growing an international events agency. Anyone who has started their own business, large or small, will share one thing in common: the thrill, excitement and enthusiasm that goes hand-in-hand with selling products or services from your own efforts. Governments have rarely seemed to grasp this, and yet now I sense a new urgent mantra sweeping through every Whitehall department following Brexit: trade.

You can hear it in almost every department, and not just the obvious ones. We have health minsters touting the merits of our Life Sciences and Pharma Industries, the Home Office looking at how to extend business traveller visas and make them simpler and easier to obtain. DCMS is capitalising on the cheap pound to drive tourism and the Prime Minister attended the Gulf GCC summit for the first time at the end of last year.

And now, it is clear that the Department for International Development is spelling out a new and welcome mantra about trade and aid. The Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, wrote in August last year of how she sees her new job as more than just about aid, saying, “I want to help build the UK’s trading partners of tomorrow.” She went on to explain that: “we must seize the opportunity of leaving the EU to expand free trade with those who need it most, to boost investment in the poorest countries, and to forge new alliances with the world’s emerging economies.”

Patel set out three new policy drivers: immunisation and vaccination; creating sustainable economies in poorer countries (thereby reducing migration); and “building trading partners for the future”. In doing so, Priti Patel has set out how international aid spending should also work for Britain by both delivering tangible results for the world’s poorest people – by helping them stand on their own two feet and so reducing aid commitment in the future – and in so doing, build a safer, more prosperous world for the UK. Who can argue with that?

Well, many did at first, rushing to argue that the priority for aid in the UK has always been “the alleviation of poverty and the support of the poorest groups in society, and that the UK’s aid funding was already carefully targeted towards that end”. Whilst many would dispute the claim of careful targeting being always delivered, it is absurd for some NGOs to suggest that the new emphasis argued for by the Secretary of State means that “alleviation of poverty” and “supporting the poorest groups” are somehow not going to happen. Further, these critics fail to recognise the long-term nature of what is behind the change in emphasis by the Department for International Development.

It was therefore very satisfying to hear Priti Patel demonstrate her determination to commit to this approach at the recent 10-year anniversary dinner for the Conservative Friends of Bangladesh.

In this post-Brexit era we have to re-gear our economy around the emerging developing economies in the world. Our aid budget should also be an important key to our future trade (and indeed our national security). What Priti Patel is seeking to do is – rather than simply boasting of our aid commitment as a mark of moral compassion – recognising it as a platform for our own economic development.

Forbes magazine last year made the case that new regions of trade were emerging, looking way beyond the BRIC countries to new emerging economies. The CBI said much the same in 2013, identifying the so-called Next Eleven (N-11) – countries predicted to become among the world’s largest economies of the twenty-first century. These include Pakistan and Bangladesh which are the only two N-11 emerging economies that feature in the top ten recipients of UK Aid.

Gone forever should be the untenable donations we have seen in the past, for example to Russia, and the soon-to-be-gone millions lost in the inefficiencies of the the wider EU Aid budget we presently contribute to with little say over its application. In the light of the recent revelations on the alleged £1 billion to consultants from the DFID budget, Priti Patel can now seize the opportunity to review these and other spending commitments on where our hard-earned taxpayers’ money is spent. The opportunity for the Government is to re-balance our mid- to long-term aid strategy around emerging economies of the future in a way that will both support Britain’s longer term economic security and where our aid programmes can make a difference to people’s lives.

To be clear, we are in competition with just about every other first world nation wishing to do the same thing. However, it is the commitment to and use of our aid budget (the second largest in the world) that both differentiates the UK and can give us an edge over the others, whilst making a huge difference to the lives of those it seeks to help.  The new strategy is simply a medium- to long-term investment in the security and economic development on which we will in no doubt depend upon in the years ahead.

I do not shy from the moral obligation of our commitment to a foreign aid budget. I have often defended it against the robust criticism of others and I genuinely believe that the UK has a duty to help tackle the unnecessary suffering of others. Equally, I am not shy of linking our moral case for aid with potential benefits to UK plc. Of course, there will be overriding compassionate grounds that will continue to – and should be – met regardless of pure long term economic considerations. But meeting humanitarian needs and investing in the UK’s future economic security are not mutually exclusive, and Brexit offers the Government a fantastic opportunity to do both.

(Photocredit: DFID)