International aid should not be driven by desire to strengthen trade links, MPs told

Aid is not there to create markets for British goods or win over extremists, MPs on the International Development Select Committee have been told. 

Tom Wein, founder of the anti-human trafficking initiative The Dignity Project, was speaking in Parliament this week during an evidence session on the philosophy and culture of aid. 

He said: “It should be for humanity, not national power. Good aid, when it's done right, promotes universal social services and human rights.”

Wein said later: “A strong civil society drives better outcomes in the societies holding Parliament to account [and] leaders to account, but it can't do it by itself either.”

Committee members heard from all those giving evidence that aid really needs to be framed with a more altruistic purpose. 

Sanjayan Srikanthan, chair of the NGO coalition the Start Network and chief executive of the disaster relief charity Shelterbox, said he thought politics should be left out of aid and it should not be motivated by self-interest.

In June 2020, almost 200 charities called on the government to reverse its decision to merge the Department for International Development into the Foreign Office.

Committee members wanted to know what each of those giving evidence at the session thought about the merged department’s latest development strategy. 

They called for investment in low-level civil society and bilateral assistance to some governments, particularly in areas affected by climate, conflict and poverty, which will be essential if a lasting legacy is to be left. 

Srikanthan said: “I think it needs to be based around the best of British values, not about national goals around strengthening trade links, but really about what we want to see our role in the world [being] in terms of improving outcomes for those who aren't British. That's the reason I work in aid and certainly many others as well.”

In response to a question about donor commitments, Nabila Saddiq Tayub, development and network manager at the HIV charity StopAids, said she had not seen a huge change over the past 10 years in donors shifting funding and decision-making power to the organisations and the communities where programmes were delivered.

Wein added that when bids were primarily scored on value for money, as opposed to the preferences and dignity of local citizens, then large aid organisations were always going to win out against the smaller, local ones. 

The Start Network incorporates big and small organisations within its network and Srikanthan said it was “still on that journey” about reconciling the objectives of many organisations across multiple sectors. 

He said: “Those conversations are difficult and I think one has to ask international partners: 'What is your motivation for doing it?' 

“The good in itself? Of strengthening civil society in these countries? Or is it about doing it as a way to ensure funding for yourself?”

MPs warned aid charities in January this year that they must “wake up to the fact that some of their staff are sexual predators” or face losing funding.

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