A newspaper is like a puzzle. Journalists write material that fits the exact requirement of particular pages – news, sports, health, arts, business. Like every puzzle, the structure of a newspaper is clear and logical when you understand it.  Newspapers are predictable; readers know they can turn to the back page for sports news and page three of some publications for a topless teenager.

When a newspaper has a great story they will break their own format and spread the news over many pages. This is rare but it happened twice in the last week: the Guardian’s Monday April fourth edition dedicated their first 7 pages to the “Panama Papers” – a story which they broke in the UK and is having a global impact.

A day earlier, on Sunday April third, the Mail on Sunday (MOS) did something similar. They dedicated 11 pages, including the front page, to a scandal of their own making about Britain’s “£12 billion foreign aid madness.”

My Declaration of Interest

Before criticising this material I need to declare my interests: I used to work in the aid sector. In 1991 my brother and I set up Scottish European Aid, a humanitarian aid agency for Bosnia and Romania which later got incorporated into a big American NGO called Mercy Corps. I later worked for DFID – the UK Government’s Department for International Development, the main target of the MOS’s campaign – in Romania and Russia. Currently I’m based in Liverpool where I have a new PR agency and I don’t work for anyone mentioned in this article.

My view about the MOS’s campaign is that it makes some good points but is fundamentally wrong. If you want to criticise a government department that spends over £12 billion a year, it’s easy to find some dubious sounding projects.

The real question is whether the British Government was right to make it a legal obligation to spend 0.7% of our Gross National Income on foreign aid. The MOS says that this is “madness” and they rounded up a bevy of disgruntled MPs to back them up and got 150,000 readers to sign a petition (that’s a lot of signatures, I have to admit, but it’s just a fraction of their vast online readership).

Maybe the 0.7% foreign aid target is unreasonable and needs further debate. I’m open to that; there are things about the aid budget that can be improved. The problem is that the MOS supports this demand with a series of manipulative statements insinuating that DFID’s aid money is being squandered.

But is it? In all my years of working abroad on aid projects, DFID was the only donor I came across that wasn’t bureaucratic. They’re particularly good in a crisis, were instrumental in stopping the spread of Ebola in West Africa and are unusually flexible among cumbersome government donors. They are particularly valuable in this time of global crisis.

Journalism or Propaganda?

Rather than show even one proven example of corrupt practices, the MOS cherry pick certain projects and presents them out of context.  They obviously have a problem with foreign aid but it’s not clear why. Are they trying to divert attention away from their owner’s offshore investments? Is this journalism or propaganda? Their approach is dangerous as it gives people the false idea that their taxes are being wasted abroad while poverty at home gets ignored.  It will just contribute to popular anger and cynicism.

The web version of the story includes a photo of a mansion which, they claim, is an “£8 million palace built by Palestine, which has received £72 million of foreign aid.” Similar stories are presented from Rwanda, Pakistan and South Africa.

By linking the corrupt activities of leaders in these countries to DFID grants insinuates that the whole thing is a racket, that British taxpayers are funding Palestinian terrorists, the palaces and planes of African dictators and that people in these countries are laughing at us for our stupidity.

This couldn’t be more wrong. The poorest countries in the world are often the worst governed.  Most citizens in those countries live in abject poverty and some will migrate to the west. Meanwhile the leaders may be living in luxury. Absolute wealth and grinding poverty are two sides of the same coin. They always go together.

The question for western governments (and fundraisers) is what can we do about it? Do we just ignore the plight of impoverished people in the Middle East and Africa, as countries like Russia do, or do we share 0.7% of our national income?  Can we help these people without enriching corrupt leaders?

Are we spending aid money correctly?

To me it’s a “no brainer” – I know that DFID finances (and monitors) specific projects and not corrupt politicians. The MOS presents no evidence to show that DFID grants are being used by corrupt politicians, and don’t call for (or mention) an investigation.

One of the main points is that our own self-interest is at stake: helping poor countries is the best way of slowing down the mass migration into Europe.

But are we spending that money correctly?  Writing in the Guardian, Simon O’Connell, the CEO of Mercy Corps Europe says “we should welcome a discussion about the UK’s commitment to aid spending”.

Mercy Corps received £27m from DFID for a two-year programme in Syria: “In a country with such weak governance and extensive conflict, this is extraordinarily complex and high risk.” writes O’Connell. “It has never been more urgent to engage positively with the world’s challenges. There are more displaced people now than at any time since the second world war – 60 million people, half of them children…The UK is a leader in using its aid budget to tackle these issues. It is an essential part of our global role.”

My Brother’s Perspective from South Sudan

I mentioned that my brother (Magnus) and I got into emergency aid work in the early 1990s. I moved on, and now work in PR, but he’s still at it. He’s worked in the Balkans, the Horn of Africa, Bandah Aceh (the Indonesian city that was demolished by the 2004 Tsunami), Pakistan, Nepal and Lebanon.

Magnus is currently in Edinburgh, just back from one of the newest (and poorest) countries in the world: South Sudan. He worked there, in the capital city of Juba, as the “humanitarian advisor” to DFID. I asked him what he thought about DFID’s work and this is what he sent me (by email):

“DFID are helping millions affected by war and crisis around the world.  DFID is one of the most important donors out there. They are pushing UN agencies and NGOs [Non-Government Organisations] to get much better value for money in all projects, and getting some really innovative, smarter approaches piloted and implemented all over the world.

“DFID is the lead donor supporting education for girls across South Sudan – where nobody else is doing this.  Or staying put in Pakistan where floods and earthquakes wreck people’s lives year on year.  DFID is almost always the first to respond and with long lasting, meaningful projects – that build people’s resilience to future disasters.”

A Fundraiser’s Perspective

I wanted to speak to someone who raises money for a humanitarian aid agency that works with DFID, and ask if they were discouraged by the MOS campaign against DFID.

I spoke to David Fox-Pitt, who has raised several million pounds for charity over the last 16 years – through the Artemis Quadrathlon which he describes as “the toughest one-day event in Scotland.”

“Whenever we raise money for an international aid agency,” said Fox Pitt, “we meet with them, choose a project and go out and visit it. I know they will spend the money well and that nothing goes to local government officials.

“The advantage of working with big donors like DFID or the EU’s aid agency (ECHO) is that they can multiply the value of a donation up to 7 times.”

One year Fox-Pitt’s quadrathlon raised £150,000 which went to TB prevention work in Pakistan. Their contribution was matched by £1.7 million by the EU and over 35,000 people with TB were helped. The TB project was such a success that the World Health Organisation contributed a further £28 million.

Fox-Pitt didn’t seem discouraged by the MOS’s tirade. He’s certainly not going to stop fundraising for the likes of Mercy Corps, Mary’s Meals and various local Scottish charities. And he has strong views on the importance of foreign aid:

“The richer countries must show more compassion on vitally important aid and education. If we just ignore what’s happening in Africa it will come back to us tenfold.”


If you would like to make a comment about this issue, please add one below. What do YOU think about foreign aid? I would really appreciate your feedback.

Photo of aid being delivered in South Sudan by Magnus Wolfe Murray