Foreign aid: how does Britain spend its overseas aid budget?

As pressure mounts on UK to take in more refugees fleeing to Europe, David Cameron has insisted that Britain is already offering help through foreign aid.

The government says it has spent £900m from its foreign aid budget on helping some of the four million refugees who have fled Syria since the war began. The vast majority of them are in refugee camps in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and the need for humanitarian aid is constant.

The money has been spent on basic supplies like running water, food, medicine and shelter, the BBC reports. Cameron’s government insists that spending money on the ground and searching for political solutions is a much more effective response to the migrant crisis than opening up the country’s borders.

Britain is a significant contributor to global aid. Earlier this year, it became the first country in the G7 to honour its commitment to ringfencing 0.7 per cent of gross national income for foreign aid.

That means that 7p of every £10 raised from taxpayers is spent on overseas development. In 2013, this amounted to £11.4bn. Provisional figures for 2014 suggest the figure rose to £11.8bn last year.

Foreign aid has become a politically divisive issue, with some arguing that it should not be protected at a time of austerity at home. There are also concerns about where the money is going and how it is being spent.

Despite this, the vast majority of Britons support overseas development spending and believe the UK should keep its promise to increase aid to developing countries.

How does UK foreign aid compare to other countries?

Only five other countries – Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg, Denmark and the United Arab Emirates – met or exceeded the 0.7 per cent target in 2013, although The Netherlands had consistently met it in the past, reports The Guardian. In terms of volume, the UK was the second largest overseas aid donor out of the 29 OECD Development Assistance Committee members in 2013. The USA was the largest.

Where does foreign aid go?

In the last couple of years nearly 40 per cent of the budget has gone to multilateral organisations, such as the United Nations, while the remaining 60 per cent has gone to developing countries, known as bilateral aid. The most recent full report on the UK’s international development statistics, which is for 2013, shows that Pakistan, Ethiopia and Bangladesh received the most bilateral aid from the UK. The sector that benefited most from UK bilateral aid was health.

The Department for International Development’s priorities for 2015 included helping nine million children into primary school, immunising more than 55 million children against preventable diseases, saving the lives of at least 250,000 newborn babies and encouraging global action on climate change. One recent example of spending was a grant of £724,500 to Medical Aid for Palestinians to deliver trauma support and plastic reconstructive surgery for many of those injured in the recent Gaza conflict. Another example was the £230m, thought to have risen higher in recent months, provided to help control the spread of Ebola.

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What do the political parties say?

The Liberal Democrats, who brought the 0.7 per cent commitment bill to parliament, have said it is “our moral obligation” to ensure that as few people as possible have to endure poverty, human rights abuses, educational discrimination and easily avoidable risks to their lives.

The Conservatives say that international aid helps prevent failed states from becoming “havens for terrorists”, reduces migrant pressures and builds long-term markets for the UK’s businesses by promoting global prosperity.

Labour is also “proud” to support the 0.7 per cent commitment, but wants to rebalance the budget to focus funding on the world’s poorest countries to “improve the lives of those affected by violence, prioritising the protection and education of women and children”.

The Green Party would like to see the target raised to one per cent, while Ukip wants to repeal the 0.7 per cent law and reduce overseas aid to 0.2 per cent. Nigel Farage’s party claims that at a time of austerity in the UK, when hundreds of thousands of people have had to rely on foodbanks, overseas spending should be reduced. The money is “not well directed or controlled” and “much is wasted, lost to corruption or handed to countries already wealthy enough to have their own space programmes, nuclear weapons and even overseas aid programmes of their own”, says the party.

What does the public say?

Despite calls to limit foreign aid spending from some political parties, it is clear from a number of surveys that the British public strongly supports current spending levels, say researchers at The London School of Economics and Political Science.

Ben Jackson, Chief Executive of Bond, which represents UK relief and development charities, agrees. “British public opinion is often assumed to be hostile to development aid but [surveys] show that we are a more generous nation than some people think,” he told The Independent.

“The bottom line is that ordinary people want politicians to continue to keep our development aid promise to poorer countries.