OVER the past few months I’ve come to realise that Ronald Reagan was wrong. The most terrifying words are not: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”. Let me explain.
Last month, I reported on a scandal in Tanzania where it was alleged that money belonging to European taxpayers was being embezzled, or lost, through corruption. Such is the way with government aid programmes, you might think. After all, the Department for International Development (DfID) recently announced that £1.2m of its budget was subject to fraud from 2010-11.
The House of Lords' Economic Affairs Committee recently described this amount as “implausibly low”, but to British taxpayers it is already far too high, in an environment of weak growth and a gaping hole in both public and personal finances. The unions would tell you that £1.2m could have paid for 40 more doctors, nurses, teachers or police officers. Conservatives might argue that we could have lifted 120 low-earners out of tax.
Cash spent abroad at a cost to you and I should not be trivialised, especially with the arbitrary target of 0.7 per cent of GDP for British foreign aid spending that the House of Lords economic affairs committee recently decried, saying it “wrongly prioritises the amount spent rather than the result achieved”.
I know what you’re going to say – how, when the department spends £7.7bn per year, can we expect nothing to leak out, especially when operating in uniquely corrupt or opaque areas?
Firstly, don’t be fooled. The £7.7bn budget is the department’s total cash for the year – not its aid budget. So the proportion of fraud to actual aid spending is a lot higher. Secondly, the £1.2m figure is the government’s own estimation, and as it has a vested interest in securing its departmental expenditure limits, should be treated with appropriate scrutiny. Lastly, the figure doesn’t account for aid spending channelled through non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
In Tanzania, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) estimated that around £85,000 went missing from a multi-million pound project undertaken with the Norwegian government. After Norway suspended its funding, the WWF had to make 13 heads roll and bring in investigators to find out what happened.
In general, the proportion of waste and corruption across all NGOs is unknown. Government losing your money is one thing, but when it funds lobby groups who preside over such waste it is a scandal.
It is imperative that corruption is weeded out, and the very best way of doing this is to stop taxpayer funding of lobby groups altogether. In the case of the WWF, if it is truly an independent, grassroots network it should have no problem convincing people to give to its cause.
In the meantime, I submit to you again that Ronald Reagan was wrong. The most terrifying words in the English language are in fact: “I’m from a government-funded lobby group and I’m here to help.”
Raheem Kassam is the executive editor of TheCommentator.com and he tweets at @RaheemJKassam