Comic Relief and UK Aid

Will Holmes
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Like many of you, I spent my Friday night in the annual tradition of being made to laugh and cry by comedians, musicians, film and TV stars. I guffawed my way through sketches including The Vicar of Dibley’s take on why the Church of England voted against women Bishops, the marriage of Simon Cowell to, surprise surprise, himself, and a bizarre scene showing David Walliams telling all of his exes he had an STI. I bawled my eyes out at scenes of kids dying from malaria, of families destroyed by the ravages of HIV, and people forced to drink filthy water that is both their lifeblood and their death sentence.

The next morning, when I awoke to find out that the night had raised over £75 million, I was astounded at the generosity of the British public. As someone who works in charities, I can safely say that the majority – even some of the biggest organisations – wouldn’t survive without the generous support of people across the UK. Whatever the cause, large or small, there will always be people in this country willing to give their own money to support the work of charities. With the money raised, organisations can continue to fund essential services that would not be funded otherwise. In doing so they protect some of the most vulnerable in society.

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This philanthropic nature, however, does not always seem so evident. In a recent YouGov survey, asked whether they believed the UK Aid budget was too high, 61% of respondents said yes. This was even after the real figure of spending was given, rather than the wildly over-estimated average figure of around £79 billion. If this were true, it would be more than spending on education and a little over 8% of the annual expenditure.

The UK spends 0.7% of its annual budget on overseas aid – amounting to around £8 billion. This is around the highest of most developed nations – France spends 0.46%, the USA spends 0.18%. However, in comparison to other parts of the UK budget it is negligible. The budget for the Ministry of Defence is around four times higher than our aid budget at £37.25 billion and we spend £48.2 billion on annual loan interest.

As a nation, it seems, we’d much rather spend more money on finding new ways to kill people than in funding vaccines for children. However, I understand the calls for solving our own problems first as there are so many inequalities in the UK that need to be fixed. Schools, hospitals and more social housing need to be built. But this does not mean that we can’t help others too. It was nothing but luck that meant we grew up in the UK – should this luck mean we get everything whilst someone less fortunate by birth gets nothing?

As a developed nation, development that often came from exploiting the poor and needy, we have a duty to help those across the globe who are unable to help themselves. This is the moral imperative of humanity. We should not stand by as people die needlessly. If we can provide, we should. People in the developing world are priced out of healthcare, clean water and safe homes, because Western companies want to profit. Pharmaceuticals, oil companies and food producers have a lot to answer for in Africa, Asia and Latin America – in the boom years of capitalism they, along with rampant neo-liberal government agendas, corruption and destruction of ecosystems, have done more damage to the people of this world than any natural disasters. If we can begin to redress that balance by committing to spend a tiny portion of our budget on funding the most necessary projects, then we should.

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Perhaps international development organisations need to become better at showing the good their work actually does, rather than just the negatives they fight against. We need to see the horrors of life for children in the developing world, but we also need to see the benefits that our spending gives. If people believe there is hope, that the government’s money works – rather than going to corrupt governments or failing to prevent the spread of HIV – then they understand the need and would be less hostile.

On Friday, Lenny Henry told us how Africa has changed dramatically in 25 years of Comic Relief. It really is becoming a success story. But there is still so far to go, and targeted money from government – as well as huge fundraising efforts – are the only way that people are going to get the best chance in life they can.

About Will Holmes

Will is a campaigner, political obsessive and sometime amateur actor. Having just helped win the election for Barack Obama, he's looking for his next cause to take up his life. Often seen walking the fields and drinking in the pubs of Kent, he's got a lot of opinions (and love) to share.