When the armed forces are under such pressure, enduring a high operational tempo, breaching harmony guidelines, suffering redundancies, cuts in capabilities, pay freezes, erosion in terms and conditions of service and even unable to affords the paltry £10m a year to maintain RFA Largs Bay increasing overseas aid and even making that increase law, is a tough sell.
It must be corrosive on morale to see training budgets cut, equipment programmes cancelled and as a thank you for your service a brown envelope with your notice in, all whilst a never ending stream of cash goes out the other door for overseas aid.
The government constantly tells us that defence of the realm is any government’s first duty, that a strong debt free economy will contribute to that defence and therefore, the cuts in the MoD’s budget ultimately contribute to that defence.
That of course is all fair enough, without a sound fiscal foundation, any spending on bullets is ultimately wasted but to then expect the MoD to share the nations burden (despite being engaged in multiple operations) whilst shovelling increasing quantities of cash out of the back door is particularly galling, is this what they call the military covenant?
The intention of the government to raise the budget for overseas aid and development to 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) has been signalled for some time, this is nothing new.
What was new was the letter from Liam Fox to David Cameron, in which he criticised the decision to enshrine the increase and new base level in law.
Putting the commitment on the statute books could limit the Government’s ability to change its mind about the pace at which it reaches the target in order to direct more resources toward other activities or programmes rather than aid
A lot in the media interpreted this as some sort of attack on the concept of aid itself but Liam Fox is a lot cannier than that.
We do not enshrine in law the percentage of our budget we spend on railways, the national art collection, defence of the realm or the nation’s health so why should we do so for overseas development assistance (ODA) as it is now called.
Putting aside the issue of a department with more leaks than a Conservative coherent defence strategy the role of overseas aid and development assistance in our collective security is important.
Level heads realise that money spent on educating those vulnerable to radicalisation so they don’t strap on a PETN filled back pack is a wise investment but there are limits and it is in the practical implementation where high level principals meet the brick wall of reality.
The Conservative government boasted of a new realism in overseas aid, creating a tighter link between it and conflict prevention, aligning DFiD with the National Security Strategy and using the various soft power levers at our disposal in a much more coherent and coordinated manner.
Although disaster response is a relatively small part of DFiD’s budget how difficult would it have been to find the £10m per year running costs of RFA Largs Bay from its multi billion pound yearly settlement. This would have been joined up thinking, using her for disaster response, mentoring recipient nations own security forces or even using her as a floating classroom or hospital. Instead, she is sold to Australia for the knockdown sum of £65million.
There is a wider debate about the value and role of overseas development assistance, how much should be spent on the altruistic goal of ‘helping the poor’ and how much should be spent on insuring the UK against threats from overseas.
I favour a more hard nosed approach, a greater alignment with security and trade and less pouring money from the UK into the various Mercedes dealerships dotted around the worlds most strife torn regions.
Pumping money into poor nations inevitably creates tensions and temptations, the news this week about the huge frauds committed in Kabul should come as no surprise to anyone and it is obvious that when governments receive direct assistance it is often used to displace other spending.
Is it a coincidence that in the few days after the UK announced a massive increase in aid to Pakistan it announced a 12% increase in its defence budget?
I think not.
We need a mature debate on the subject, without the Saint Bono effect and DFiD, the MoD and the FCO need to actually think how they can use their combined budgets to further the interests and security of the UK.