Should charity start and end at home?

In the UK, times are hard and budgets stretched. One in five children are living in food poverty. There is increasing use of food banks. More homeless people are sleeping on the streets. It is hardly surprising that there are growing calls for us to reduce the amount we send in overseas aid to other countries.

Such demands are reinforced by a range of common perceptions about overseas aid.   Some people cite examples of corruption and waste, with aid hijacked by dishonest politicians and warlords. Others argue that many countries, like India, which are increasingly affluent should pay for their own development needs. And there is a widespread perception that aid should simply be a short-term response to crises such as war, disease and famine. Now that we have, here in the UK,  malnourished children, sick people on ever-lengthening waiting lists for treatment, displaced and homeless people sleeping on the streets, many argue that we need to spend this money on our own citizens, not send it abroad.

The result is that Dominic Raab, whose Foreign Office has recently taken over the Department for International Development (DfID) is now requiring UK diplomats to cut up to 70 per cent from the aid budget. The 2021 budget will be £10bn, £5bn less than in 2019, and it will be the first time that the UK will not meet the UN-recommended spending target. [Many MPs are very unhappy that these cuts will come into play before a vote in parliament as Johnson reneges on yet another promise. Ed]

But there are those, like me, who strongly disagree with this policy. In my 15 years as a charity volunteer in Ethiopia I have seen that aid can be provided in ways that address many of these objections. I volunteer for the small Devon charity Exeter Ethiopia Link (EEL), which was established over 30 years ago.

Originally it set out to raise small sums of money from coffee mornings and fun-runs, to patch up small deficiencies in the provision of water, healthcare and schooling in Nekemte, a small town in the west of Ethiopia. EEL decided to give donkeys to women forced to carry heavy loads to market, to provide textbooks for schools, and to raise funds to set up an eye clinic. Very much the ‘sticking plaster’ model in operation. But when we visited, many of the women had had to sell the donkeys to support their families; the schools had locked away the books as too precious for children to use; the eye clinic was still dependent on funds from outside.

It became clear that we needed to consult with and involve our Ethiopia partners much more for projects to be sustainable. For instance, the Ethiopian teachers identified that the major literacy problem was not just the lack of books, but the lack of a structure to support reading – what was crucially needed was a school librarian. This led EEL to apply to Comic Relief for a large grant to provide and train librarians in the town schools. The success of this project, in turn, led to an application for a grant from DfID to develop reading centres in the schools, using high-school students to make booklets for starter readers in local language, training teachers in early reading methods and employing local people with disabilities to make the classroom furniture.

The next step was another grant from DfID to support access to schooling for children with disabilities living in the rural areas around Nekemte. Such long-term, ongoing intervention, supported by the community and subsequently upscaled and funded by the local education authorities, has changed the lives of thousands of children. One of our proudest moments was when students with hearing impairment who had been supported by EEL through high school were the first such students in Ethiopia to go to university!

Through ongoing consultation and working in partnership with the local community, we’ve found ways to avoid the substantial criticism that much aid is squandered on short-term projects conceived as worthwhile by the funders, but neither wanted nor needed by the local people. Just because we’re a conduit for funding doesn’t mean that we know best.

“Ethiopia, Oromia” by Ninara31 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Working in this way tackles political corruption and waste. The Ethiopian Government requires foreign charities to work through a registered Ethiopian partner, and both Comic Relief and DfID exercise stringent oversight over their grants. Even small charities like EEL are required to jump through many hoops in order to get a small grant of £150,000 – no wonder that few manage it. Then the reporting and monitoring of every Ethiopia birr spent is so rigorous that it deters all but the most determined charities. Our work is directly monitored in Nekemte and we have to provide evidence of our effectiveness with quarterly reports on the impact upon every individual in the project. And as a small charity with very close relationships with our Ethiopian partner, we have been able to react swiftly and appropriately to the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Although Covid-19 has yet to have as much of an impact in Ethiopia as it has in other countries (2270 reported deaths and 152,000 cases as of Feb 2021), the economic and educational implications of lockdown have been huge. Ethiopia has no social security system. EEL therefore targeted its support to help the most vulnerable in the rural communities around Nekemte. We funded soap for handwashing, and fertilizer and seeds were provided to over 170 families where there was a disabled adult or child. As a result, they managed to continue their subsistence farming and so to ensure their children returned to schools when they reopened in October 2020.

Schools are still open but to allow for social distancing, the children attend for only half the week. EEL has funded 34 librarians in primary schools (the annual cost of one librarian is £200), which not only provides 34 young people with a job, but ensures that students can have a safe place to study, and even borrow books when not in school.  In January this year over 13,300 students were accessing the libraries we are supporting, and over 1000 books were lent.

But you may say “All well and good, but how do we Devon taxpayers benefit from money going to Ethiopia which could go to our children?”  I would argue that providing such humanitarian aid to other countries is a moral and legal obligation. What’s more, enabling positive development contributes to a more stable, more peaceful world, reducing the likelihood of human-made crises such as the large-scale displacement of people. We all benefit from this. But I would also argue that we get back so much more for the relatively small sums, in global terms, that UK taxpayers provide.

As just one example, EEL supports schools in Devon in setting up and sustaining links with schools in Nekemte, exchanging letters and doing joint curriculum projects. We ensure that the schools involved with DfID’s ‘Connecting Classroom through Global Learning’ project, which funds reciprocal visits for teachers, can sustain the relationships. Devon teachers returning from Nekemte after teaching in the schools there have come back informed and inspired. This way, thousands of children in Devon have learned first-hand about children’s lives in Nekemte through personal stories, and they can appreciate and value the cultural similarities and diversities. They are also provoked into reflecting upon how our consumerist lifestyle impacts upon people in Ethiopia.

Please think about these wider issues and implications and do whatever you can to resist the UK cuts to Overseas Development Aid.   Make the case to those who argue for the cuts and, if you can, support such development initiatives in your local schools and communities. In years to come we cannot afford to close ourselves off if we are to create a more peaceful and equitable world for our children and grandchildren.