Why a portion UK overseas aid money should be given to the armed forces

Britain’s £13 billion annual international aid budget is extremely controversial and re-directing this money often cited as a way of solving the defence funding crisis. Theresa May recently said she remains committed to the current level of spending on aid. There is a strong moral, economic and security case for Official Development Assistance (ODA) and humanitarian aid but there is little doubt we should be allocating the funds more intelligently. The armed forces are key enablers for aid delivery and disaster response – a portion of the generous DFID budget should be re-directed to finance more ships, aircraft and personnel.

There are many that say the funding crisis in defence (and other areas of the public sector) could be quickly solved by simply axing the entire international aid budget. This point of view is typical of the simple solutions to complex problems that are a regular feature of the tabloid press, but which could do us more harm than good. It is the often the same people saying the RN should not rescue migrants, but let them drown at sea, so as to discourage others.

In most cases, common humanity and co-operation are far more likely to create a secure, stable and prosperous world for everyone, than the brutal application of short-term self-interest.

Some UK ODA projects have been wasteful failures, plagued by corruption or were unsound enterprises from the start. The tabloids may exaggerate and distort some of the cases but there has been mismanagement and excess on a substantial scale. David Cameron foolishly enshrined a commitment to always spend 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid into law, resulting in a ludicrous situation where DFID is forced to shovel money out, just to meet this arbitrary annual target. We are also effectively subsidising other nation’s defence budgets by providing welfare for their poorest citizens. For example, Pakistan has long been the largest recipient of UK aid (£370 million in 2015) yet has a nuclear weapons programme and is expanding its navy. It could also be argued that the logistic support the Taliban received via Pakistan was a decisive factor in NATO’s failure to defeat them and cost British lives in Afghanistan. With such serious implications for all concerned, in some cases, our aid priorities should be reconsidered and have strings attached.

Poor strategy and mismanagement is clearly an issue for aspects of DFID’s work and this must be addressed urgently. Unfortunately, few government departments are immune from accusations of bureaucratic waste, the MoD, for example, is in no position to lecture about strategy or efficiency. The methods, results and politics of international aid is a complex subject which we will not attempt to cover in detail here. However, the respected OECD still rates DFID overall as one of the most effective and efficient aid agencies in the world. There are many success stories with thousands of lives saved, communities stabilised and poverty reduced, all of which far outnumber the failures.

The case for international aid

The moral case. It would be disingenuous not to admit that Britain bears a measure of historical responsibility for some of the poverty and problems in the world. Furthermore, some of our wealth has been derived from the exploitation of other nations. Aid is a small if incomplete, recompense for this. As one of the very richest nations, it is quite reasonable to give a relatively small proportion of our income to help the very poorest. We may argue about how much we donate and where it goes, but in principle, it is simply the right thing to do.

The economic case. Britain aspires to be an outward looking and engaged member of the global community. Brexit makes it especially important that this remains the case at this time. To abandon overseas aid would be perceived as another sign of Britain retreating from the world. Aid is another UK foreign policy lever, and just like the Royal Navy and helps support and promote Britain’s global brand, critical in trade and diplomacy. By improving the economic prospects of poor nations, ultimately we all benefit from increased trade and prosperity.

The security case. By improving conditions abroad we reduce some of the threats that may be imported into the UK. Where there is a healthy economy, stable government, healthcare and education there will be less room for political and religious extremism, terrorism or an incentive for mass migration. Containing epidemics and disease at source prevents them spreading globally and to the UK. Contributing to multi-national peacekeeping efforts also help restore stability to war-torn regions and prevent further conflict.

A brief photographic history of recent RN disaster response

  • RFA Argus alongside in Freetown, part of the UK forces response to the Ebola outbreak. After transporting vehicles and supplies, Argus acted as a logistics hub, helicopter base. This very successful forces and DFID operation ran from October 2014 until November 2015 when Sierra Leone was declared Ebola free.

  • RFA Lyme Bay off Dominica in 2015. Using her embarked Lynx helicopter and mexflote she provided assistance to the island following storm Erica which caused fatal flooding, mudslides, landslides and rock falls.

  • HMS Bulwark arrived in the central Mediterranean in 2015 to acted as a rescue hub for thousands of migrants in small boats attempting to reach Europe from Africa. This operation is effectively still on-going. HMS Enterprise, Echo and Mersey, as well as UK Border Force cutters, have been involved at different times since 2015.

  • Lynx from HMS Daring and RN personnel provide assistance after the Philippines was devasted by severe a Typhoon in November 2013. HMS Illustrious (main image above) loaded supplies in Singapore and also joined the relief effort.

  • On 12th Jan 2010 a powerful earthquake hit Haiti, killing 200,000 people and left more than 1.5 million others in need of food and shelter. Vehicles, food and other supplies were sent directly from the UK aboard RFA Largs Bay, seen here being unloaded by mexflote.

Moving foreign aid money to defence

The growing financial problems at the MoD demands responsible government look at every means to address the issue. Increasing taxes, national debt or cuts to health education or welfare look politically extremely unattractive. Re-directing aid money to our forces would help avoid dangerous cuts while boosting our ability to respond to emergencies around the world. The Public Accounts Committee says the MoD is now facing a funding shortfall of at least £1Bn a year just to meet the existing programme. New money would quickly relieve this pressure which is hollowing out or forces and damaging long-term capabilities.

If just 20% of the DFID budget (approx £2.6 billion annually) was passed to the MoD and earmarked for spending on defence assets that are frequently used as tools for humanitarian operations, it would make an enormous difference.

Government is quite happy to manipulate internal accounting methods to make it appear that we spend 2% GDP on defence. They should, therefore, have little compunction about counting funding provided to the forces for aid-related tasks, as part of the DIFD budget. The headline figure of 0.7% GDP on aid can be maintained without Parliament having to change the law, even if not strictly within OCED rules.

The vessels of the RN and RFA are prime platforms for humanitarian operations. (See previous article) With additional funding, the maintenance and running cost of some of its assets could be shouldered by the aid budget. This would free up funds for other areas of the service. The new funding could also provide a contribution to the general cost of the RN surface fleet as ships companies are routinely trained for disaster relief and evacuation work. Although this is only an outline proposal, some other specific suggestions could include;

Funding the running costs for the 3 Bay class Auxiliary Landing ships. It costs less than £10 Million per year to run a Bay class vessel but cuts forced the MoD to sell one of these 4 valuable ships in 2010. These are proven aid delivery platforms and benefit from a large flight deck and well dock that allows supplies to brought ashore by landing craft or mexeflote, especially useful in remote locations or when there are no functioning port facilities nearby. A further 2 Bay class vessels could be built, perhaps with one stationed permanently in the Carribean on call for disaster relief work.

Fund the replacement and running costs of RFA Argus . Old and in need of replacement, this ship has a hospital on board and provides aviation training for the RN. She is another proven aid platform that could be replaced with a merchant ship conversion at low cost.

Build a dedicated hospital ship. We have already made the strong case for a ship that conforms to the Geneva Convention rules on hospital ships and provides free healthcare overseas in this article.

Purchase more Merlins and fully marinize some of the Chinook helicopter fleet. Helicopters are a key asset in disaster relief. They can quickly conduct aerial surveys of devastated areas, then bring in personnel and equipment direct to where it’s most needed. They can also airlift injured people out to ships or hospitals. There are just 24 ‘Junglie’ Merlin HC3/4 transport helicopters and this could be increased with either brand new aircraft of or at least by reviving the 12 orphaned Merlin airframes currently in storage. Additional aircrew and support personnel would be needed. The RAF Chinooks that may embark on the aircraft carriers do not have folding rotors and are not modified for the marine environment. Their heavy lift capability would be very useful for disaster relief.

Expand MoD owned sea-lift. It should be noted that merchant ships with significant capacity are usually needed to bring in large scale supplies after the initial emergency response is provided by the military. The MoD has 4 Point class Ro-Ro vessels on charter which are used for transporting military equipment overseas. This capacity could be expanded by chartering or building additional ships. New money could also contribute to the cost of the 3 planned Fleet Solid Support Ships which provide food, ammunition and spares to the RN at sea.

Provide additional amphibious equipment. The Royal Marines are about to see their LCVP landing craft reduced from 16 to 12 when HMS Ocean commissions in 2018. New craft to operate from the Bay Class and HMS Albion would be useful. The 10 larger LCU craft capable of carrying vehicles are old and slow and could be replaced with faster more modern equivalents

In cases where there are serviceable runways available, RAF transport aircraft are often the first on the scene of a disaster. RAF heavy lift capability could be expanded by funding additional C-17 Globemasters. In sustained operations, providing trained personnel on the ground is important. Additional funds should be provided to the Army particularly for medical, engineering and logistics personnel and equipment.

It should be noted that this spending shift could strengthen our ability to respond to emergencies at the cost of some of DIFD’s more long-term economic projects. However, with improved management and tougher controls on aid spending, the impact on development projects should be small, especially as we are only proposing a 20% shift in priorities.

In time of war or conflict all these assets would obviously be directed to that purpose. Alternatively, in the case of a large-scale humanitarian crisis, additional naval and military assets would be allocated. This inherent flexibility would allow an appropriate response to events without an additional burden on the taxpayer.