Smarter UK policy could mean aid is no longer needed

Andrew Haldenby
THE government’s aid budget is the only area of UK public spending rising quickly. It will increase by 37 per cent in real terms over the life of this Parliament, while other government budgets are cut or remain flat at best. Perhaps as a result, 55 per cent of voters in the latest polling want to see the aid budget reduced.

The question is how. Some would trim the budget or even abolish it altogether. But others hold a different view. They suggest taking a new approach to aid spending that, instead of judging success by the total size of the budget, tries to get value from every pound spent. And they look forward to a time when the success of aid spending means that it is no longer needed. In that case, the budget can indeed dwindle – but for the right reasons.

In a report released today, drawing on the lessons of three years working on education reform in Pakistan on behalf of the UK Department for International Development, chief education adviser at Pearson Sir Michael Barber explains how it can be done. On the one hand, he strongly supports recent increases in the aid budget. But at the same time, he is convinced that aid spending should be subject to the same rigour as all other budgets.

The problem, Barber warns, is a “doomloop” of low expectations, in which both governments and donors choose small-scale programmes that are relatively easy to deliver, but which do not challenge the underlying causes of poverty and underdevelopment. Instead, he has helped the provincial government in Punjab implement a programme which delivers practical help to each of the 60,000 government-run schools several times per month (for comparison, there are currently only 22,000 schools in England).

The ambition and urgency of the programme has been part of its success. In the last 18 months, non-attendance by pupils and teachers has halved, 1.5m extra pupils have been enrolled and standards have risen compared to neighbouring regions. In an example of how the private sector can be brought on board, the programme has included the biggest voucher programme in the world, which allows families to choose low-cost private schools at the government’s expense. Barber has provided the nous on delivery and implementation, which is his particular contribution to the practice of public sector reform.

The UK’s financial contribution to education in Pakistan has been £28.5m over the last 18 months. This is good value because it seeks to deliver greater effectiveness from the whole Punjab education budget (£820m in 2012-13). In fact, the chief minister in Punjab has called the joint effort “a true partnership not an aid programme”.

According to Barber, Britain’s goal should be an “end to aid”: “not because it has been demonstrably ineffective, but because one day we’ll all know that it has been demonstrably effective and everyone can see that it is no longer needed.”

Andrew Haldenby is director of the independent think tank Reform. The good news from Pakistan, by Sir Michael Barber, is available at and #goodnews