The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Article on Aid – 5 June 2011

The text of Sir John Major’s article on the aid budget, published in the Sunday Telegraph on 5th June 2011.


Cameron’s stance on Aid is right

Ahead of a global summit in London on vaccinations for the developing world, former Conservative Prime Minister John Major argues that David Cameron’s commitment to Aid is bold, necessary and right.

It has become fashionable in some quarters to see the Coalition Government’s decision to protect the life-saving Aid budget as a sign of waste and futile modernisation. The argument runs something like this: the Conservative Party’s commitment to tackling global poverty and disease was never anything more than a handy fig-leaf of modernisation, designed to win over liberal-minded voters; now that times are tough it should be discarded. And it doesn’t really matter because – in any event – it’s all wasted anyway.

This argument is wholly wrong. Its advocates miss two critical points: first, that our Party’s commitment to Aid pre-dates David Cameron and is based on conviction not calculation; and second, that every pound of Britain’s – still relatively small – Aid budget is amongst the best value of any Government spending.

Our Party’s commitment to protecting the Aid budget was made six years ago when Michael Howard was leader. It was driven – not by electoral calculation – but by a sober assessment of Britain’s place in the world, of the immense need in developing countries, and of the significant changes in the effective use of Aid over the last 20 years. The UK is still, of course, one of the wealthiest economies in the world.

Let me put this into context: there are around 4 million children in primary school in England – but, in developing countries, twice this number die every year before their fifth birthday . Again, in developing countries, a woman dies from pregnancy or childbirth every 90 seconds . This cannot be morally acceptable.

When spent wisely, Aid works: UK funding saves three million people from poverty each year. It has helped to eradicate smallpox; reduce polio cases from 350,000 a year in 1988 to just 1,500 last year; and increased the number of people on vital anti-Aids drugs from 400,000 in 2003 to more than 4 million in 2008. A child can be immunised against the killer childhood diseases for less than one would pay for a cup of coffee. It’s no surprise that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, the high-priests of global capitalism, have chosen to focus their vast philanthropic energies on tackling killer diseases in poor countries. If the private sector can do this, should not responsible Government do so as well?

Next week, the UK is hosting an international summit to drive new pledges by charities, countries and businesses for the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations [GAVI]. With the right support, the GAVI Alliance will be able to vaccinate one quarter of a billion of the world’s poorest children, saving millions of lives and giving millions the opportunity to grow up to become healthy, productive members of their communities and the wider world. No decent person would tolerate a British child dying from diarrhoea, yet this is a daily reality for thousands of families across the poor world.

The Government’s agenda is to drive even stronger value for money from our Aid spend. Andrew Mitchell and his team have led a bold shake-up of Aid, based on a hard-headed assessment of efficiency. Support to under-performing UN and international institutions has been axed, with the savings directed to more efficient and effective organisations like UNICEF. Aid to China and Russia has been stopped and redirected to poorer countries. A programme of total transparency will allow people to track where money is going – and shout if it doesn’t get to the people who need it. A much greater emphasis has been placed on using our Aid to support the building blocks of wealth creation: private property rights; cutting back red tape and overregulation to attract investors and support local entrepreneurs; and promoting free trade within Africa so as to unclog the arteries of trade and growth. Critics of Aid should recognise and welcome these changes.

Aid is more than just charity. Britain is a global development superpower, respected for the quality as well as the quantity of her Aid. As the Prime Minister has said, most people in this country want Britain to stand for something in the world, and be something in the world. Aid tells the world our nation has a heart as well as a head. Alongside our world-class armed forces and outstanding diplomats, Britain’s support for those suffering pandemics, earthquakes and droughts helps secure us respect and influence that are real, tangible and liquid.

Aid is not just from Britain, it is also for Britain. If we don’t invest in countries that are broken – like Somalia and Afghanistan – before they reach the point of despair, we end up paying the price if that despair leads to terrorism, crime, mass migration and environmental devastation.

I am proud that the Government I support has the courage of its convictions on global poverty. Of course these are tough times at home. But there are even greater hardships being suffered by those who live in the kind of abject poverty few of us can ever imagine. The Prime Minister is absolutely right to pursue this policy with vigour. We, as a nation, should be proud that our humanity and generous spirit will reach every corner of the world – and we will all be the richer for that.