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Bill Gates: U.K. providing 'moral leadership' on foreign aid

British politicians are ensnared in a charged debate over whether the embattled country’s foreign aid budget should face the chopping block.

The U.K. economy has been mired in the doldrums over the past five years, and as the Star’s Tanya Talaga reported in February, three years of ruthless cuts have failed to kickstart the private sector.

Against that backdrop, some U.K. politicians have argued the U.K., like Canada, should pare its spending.

Bill Gates is now entering that fight, arguing that while he gets “furious” when foreign aid money is wasted, the U.K. is offering a “moral leadership” and should be applauded for sticking to its pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of its gross national income on development this year.

“Your country’s steadfast decision to stick with an investment that saves more children’s lives than any other possibly could, is the very definition of morality,” Gates wrote in an op-ed on Sunday in the Daily Mail newspaper.

“Critics argue it’s immoral to spend money abroad when the domestic economy is slumping,” he wrote. “I see it differently. By taking a methodical approach to saving lives, you’re displaying moral leadership in front of the world. This will be a source of British influence around the globe for years to come.

Gates wrote about the $1.2 billion the U.K. has donated to the GAVI Alliance, a multi-country partnership that provides vaccines in developing countries. GAVI buys vaccines in bulk and with the World Health Organization and UNICEF, sends them to poor countries.

Gates wrote that GAVI works only with countries that have proven that their immunization system is strong enough to reach the vast majority of children. The recipient countries also have to cover some of the costs themselves.

Over time, each country’s share gets larger and the donors’ share gets smaller, until it is covering the entire bill for its immunization program.

“China once received GAVI support – it is now paying for its own vaccines,” Gates wrote, adding that since GAVI was created in 2000, it has protected more than 370 million children from life-threatening diseases. Over the same period, the number of children dying every year has declined by 25 per cent.

Even so, the U.K., like Canada, is trying to make its foreign aid more effective. Two years ago, following a review of its aid programs, it cut its foreign aid spending in 16 countries.

In its 2012 commitment to the development index, which scores wealthy governments on helping poor countries using aid, trade, investment, migration, environment, security and technology, the U.K. ranked No. 9 out of 27 countries analyzed.

Denmark, Norway and Sweden were the top-ranked donors, while Canada was No. 11.

“There is one important element of truth in the opponents’ critique of aid,” Gates wrote. “In development, as in all enterprises, a small percentage of money is wasted, and a percentage of that percentage is lost to corruption. Taxpayers have every right to be angry – I am furious – because when the goal is saving lives, any misspent money costs lives.”

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead



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