The final event of the Sixth Form Purvis Society took place in front of a large audience in the ALT. Mr Mark Foster, one of the co-founders of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, was the guest. Mr Foster retired in 2011 after a distinguished career in international business (amazing what can be done with an Oxford Classics degree!) but, not being one to sit on his hands, was invited to be one of four commissioners advising the Government on the usefulness of our overseas aid programme of some £2.7 billion.
Beginning with a brief biography and some throwaway phrases (“I’ve appeared on the Today programme” or, “About every six weeks I appear in front of a Select Committee; the Minister for Overseas Aid is interviewed afterwards” or, “We’ve written 38 reports in the last four years”), Mr Foster projected a world map showing the extent of his travels (employing every conceivable means of transport to reach extremely remote locations) and, reading between the lines, it was clear that, as he later said, the job was (a) not based in London and (b) took up more like 100 days a year rather than the 25 originally planned!
Assessing the contribution to overseas aid in a way that allowed countries to be compared, Mr Foster pointed out that we were now donating 0.7% of our Gross National Income and that this huge figure had increased massively in the last few years. Few other countries contribute as much. The rapid increase in aid had been commented upon by the media and here he deviated to suggest that the (fairly frequent) trial by journalist (“Aid increases too fast for recipients to spend it…”) was, occasionally, rather unhelpful. Taking India as an example of this, one tabloid had trumpeted (and I paraphrase) “UK aid supports Indian space programme”. Pointing out that India contains over a third of the world’s poorest people, Mr Foster speculated over their fate were our aid to be withdrawn… Zimbabwe has a notoriously unstable political field and yet, were it not for UK aid, there would be no Health Service at all as 80% of it is UK-funded.
In a nutshell, he and his fellow commissioners assess the value of UK aid, and here he made us think about long-term goals, the sustainability of the projects, rather than the ‘quick fix’ so often reported. Surprising many of his audience, he produced a number of figures showing that 4% of the money is diverted into safe water, sanitation and hygiene programmes; 6% into climate change resistance (less than successful, in his opinion); 4% goes towards alleviating hunger and setting up effective nutrition programmes (especially for mother and child); 12% is diverted into education projects (in his view achieving fantastic results – a school in Gaza operates a three-shift system as there are so many children desperate to be taught and yet this place is achieving some of the best results in the region); 4% goes towards HIV and malaria prevention programmes and whilst one would expect a significant sum to be diverted towards humanitarian programmes (15%), I think we were all surprised when he told us that 13% goes directly into government coffers with a view to helping to establish the infrastructure so vital to sustained development. Quietly commenting that corruption was a major thorn in the system, he pointed out that the number of countries now receiving aid from the UK had fallen significantly and he tackled the recent political hot potato (“Overseas Aid should be discarded”) by quoting a few other figures from the UK economy; we pay £32billion in interest per year) suggesting that cutting our aid programme and diverting the money elsewhere would make very little difference to those of us in the UK. He went on to develop the idea of ‘value for money’ and showed some splendid pictures taken during his many travels, including some of Kawama School, which he applauded loudly, suggesting that this programme, so dear to the hearts of Cranleighans, ticked many boxes in his estimation.
Dr Christopher Mann
Master of the Scholars