A punchy annual letter by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has launched a staunch defence of EU aid policy effectiveness, in a time of economic austerity.
The letter lists three myths that block progress for the world’s poor: that poor countries are doomed to stay poor, foreign aid is a big waste, and saving lives leads to over-population.
“Broadly speaking, aid is a fantastic investment, and we should be doing more,” Bill Gates says in the letter. “It saves and improves lives very effectively.”
Infographics accompanying the letter show how, since 2000, foreign aid has contributed to several major health breakthroughs, including:
- The vaccination of 440 million children against preventable diseases
- The immunisation of 2.5 billion children against polio
- The provision of anti-retroviral drugs for 6.1 million people
- The detection and treatment of 11.2 million cases of TB
Alexander Woollcombe, the Gates Foundation’s EU policy officer, explained that the letter was intended to counter disproportionately negative news stories by reference to the huge health advances also being made.
“We felt that it was a critical time to do this when a lot of questioning was taking place in Europe and other places about the importance of aid and development in a time of austerity,” he told EurActiv.
“The Foundation is putting its own resources into addressing a lot of the global health challenges the world faces but the resources of others are equally important,” he added.
As a bloc, the EU is still the world’s biggest donor, contributing some €55.2 billion of overseas assistance every year. But progress towards a goal of providing 0.7% of Gross National Income as aid by 2015 has ground to a halt.
At the same time, Eurosceptic and far right political parties across Europe have made political gains by contrasting humanitarian spending abroad with cuts to domestic social programmes.
“UK aid is utter shambles [sic] with billions wasted in foreign countries while we suffer deep cuts at home,” as the UK Independent Party (UKIP) MEP Godfrey Bloom put it.
The Gates Foundation letter specifically hits out at "distorted" coverage by one British newspaper, the Daily Mail, which ran a news story last year suggesting that more than half of British voters wanted to see cuts to the overseas aid budget.
The poll, on which the report was based, pitched spending on development aid against cuts to state pensions, schools, help for the elderly programmes, and frontline services. The story finished with an endorsement of the new development minister Justine Greening’s pledge to overhaul aid commitments.
“Miss Greening, a chartered accountant, has promised to examine every penny that goes on foreign aid,” the report said. “She has cancelled handouts to India and earmarked part of the budget to support Ministry of Defence peacekeeping programmes.”
'Insane and immoral, if not treasonable'
In the aftermath of such campaigning journalism, Britain’s UKIP, currently riding high in the polls, stepped up its campaign to slash overseas aid budgets, contending that such spending was “clearly insane and immoral, if not treasonable.”
UKIP claims that British overseas aid spending has been wasteful and “showered a fortune on corrupt governments” were addressed head-on by Gates in the annual letter.
“Suppose small-scale corruption amounts to a 2 percent tax on the cost of saving a life,” Gates said. “We should try to reduce that. But if we can’t, should we stop trying to save lives?”
There was a “double standard” involved in the argument he went on, as few – if any – such calls were made to close down central government support for local schools, when state or council corruption was discovered.
Unusually, the Mail adopted an almost apologetic tone in its coverage of the new Gates Foundation letter, positively citing the $28 billion that Gates has disbursed. EurActiv has been one beneficiary of this funding.
The Mail led its report with Gates' estimation that “by 2035 there will be almost no poor countries left in the world”.
In 2005, EU member states pledged to increase Official Development Assistance (ODA) to 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) by 2015 and included an interim target of 0.56% ODA/GNI by 2010.
These were based on individual targets of 0.7% ODA/GNI for the EU 15 and 0.33% GNI for the 12 Member States which joined the EU in 2004 and 2007, according to the European Commission.
EU countries that were already at or above 0.7% ODA/ GNI pledged to sustain their efforts. The EU heads of state and government reaffirmed their commitment to reach the 0.7% target by 2015 at the European Council on 7/8 February 2013.
A Eurobarometer survey from October 2012, said that 85% of polled EU citizens believed that Europe should continue donating aid to developing countries.
- Gates Foundation: Annual letter 2014
- OECD: Aid to poor countries slips further as governments tighten budgets
Godfrey Bloom, MEP: Britain cannot afford foreign aid