Since that fateful EU Referendum of 2016, much has been made of the idea of ‘Global Britain’ — a dynamic country using its soft power to advance liberal-democratic interests. In the foreword to a command paper titled ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age,’ the then-prime minister Boris Johnson said:

‘We must show that the freedom to speak, think and choose — and therefore to innovate — offers an inherent advantage; and that liberal democracy and free markets remain the best model for the social and economic advancement of humankind.’

Steadfast Britain?

It is certainly true that the UK has tried to lead in certain areas of foreign policy. We have been consistently staunch in our support of Ukraine, with dissenting voices limited to the fringes in both Parliament and wider society. Compared to Hungary’s (now-resolved) obstinance in the EU, and the uncertainty facing American aid in Congress, the UK seems to be a bastion of unflinching support for a country fighting for its territorial sovereignty.

Yet more has to be done.

The lack of Israeli movement towards a two-state solution, the West’s favoured outcome, reveals Britain’s relative shortage of foreign policy might. There is a small comfort in the fact that American attempts to sway Netanyahu’s government have similarly failed in this endeavour. The recent spate of retaliative attacks against the Houthi rebels in the Middle East has arguably not yielded the desired foreign policy outcome either.

Instability at home may be contributing to our perceived lack of influence. The state of British politics is almost beyond satire. It feels like something new emerges every week that seems to be dreamt up by the writers of Yes, Minister. A small part of me is surprised that the Right Honourable Jim Hacker MP hasn’t been backed for the leadership by some disgruntled Tory MPs. Telling the UK to go sort out its own mess first, before sticking its nose into the business of other states, seems like an appropriate response given the series of unfortunate domestic events.

The Good Samaritan

There is one area, however, where the UK always appeared to be galloping ahead. Our commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of our Gross National Income (GNI) on foreign aid, a target encouraged by the UN, was enshrined in law through the International Development (Official Development Assistance) Act of 2015. Lately, this target has noticeably declined. The Treasury now expects aid spending to total ‘around 0.5%’ of GNI until at least 2027.

Mind you, this is not the result of foreign aid suddenly becoming less needed. Global Official Development Assistance (the formal description of foreign aid) increased by 17 per cent in 2022. In light of this, how can Britain lead the world in being a good Samaritan?

The answer appears to lie in direct cash transfers.

Given the difficulty of persuading British taxpayers that overseas spending is the best use of their hard-earned cash, value for money becomes of utmost importance. Aside from the economic benefits to be gained from new markets, if we accept the premise that the developed world has a moral duty to help others catch up, then we must try and squeeze maximum value from every pound sterling.

Of course, cash transfers come with certain risks. The principal worry is that the cash will be squandered on short-term hedonistic pursuits, such as the purchase of alcohol and tobacco. However, evidence collected by leading researchers in partnership with the World Bank suggests that not only is this not the most likely scenario, but that on average cash transfers lower spending on ‘temptation goods.’

The growing body of evidence in support of cash transfers, suggests that this is not just an abstract idea drawn up in the offices of a think-tank. A study conducted by the NGO GiveDirectly in Kenya was quoted in an Oxford University research article. It estimated a resultant local ‘fiscal multiplier’ of 2.6. Put simply, every 1$ given to the poorest in randomly selected villages in Kenya will grow the local economy by approximately $2.60. That is almost a dictionary definition of value for money.

One of the main promises of Brexit was to be free from the ‘shackles’ of the EU to forge our own path in these fast-changing times. So far, our record as ‘Global Britain’ has been mixed at best. In 2021 and 2022, the EU gave 24.6 per cent of its humanitarian aid in cash transfers. Can we match that? We should certainly try. Perhaps even go beyond that.

Let’s lean into the future of aid, make the leap of faith into the unconventional, and start to become the soft power superpower that we were told we could be.

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