Anti-Poverty Campaigner Joel Edwards Examining the Issue of Overseas Aid

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Sweden has become the Manchester United of giving on Overseas Aid, but how good is their feat and does aid even work anyway? Anti-poverty campaigner Joel Edwards examines the issue.

With Manchester United looking like winning the Premier League again, it seems business as usual in the football world. Yet in the international league table of Overseas Aid, an unexpected candidate has emerged. Tiny Sweden has taken over at the top of the International League Premiership, becoming the world's largest aid donors in 2011, measured as a proportion of GNI. But does Overseas Aid even work anyway?

The late Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that.” Issues of how to help the poorest in our world are matters of life and death for millions, so we have to be clear about what works.

African economist Dambisa Moyo argues in her book ‘Dead Aid’ that some aid allows corruption and stifles creativity, yet she rightly says that some aid is effective. The truth is that Overseas Aid is simply one part of a wider picture in solving extreme poverty. That’s why these new OECD statistics are bad news for the poor. Sweden might be leading the way, but the overall figures show that the economic crisis is cutting governments' giving across the world.

So how has Sweden kept up its giving? The nation has managed to avoid the recession, and it is also smaller and higher taxed than other nations such as the UK. In addition Sweden's government and charitable bodies have very strong institutional links.

And a fascinating comparison is that the countries leading the way on Overseas Aid are secular nations that seem to be demonstrating Christian charity far more than so-called ‘Christian’ nations. In the UK before Christmas, the Prime Minister David Cameron urged the country to reclaim its Christianity, and America's politicians are now fighting for the influential Christian vote. America of course, gives more dollars to aid but the figure is a far smaller percentage than Sweden.

The future of Overseas Aid is up in the air. The UK is now planning to cap private charitable giving which has provoked a storm of protest from charities and yet is also controversially going ahead with its commitment to give 0.7 per cent of national income in foreign aid. Even though Britain's coalition has ring-fenced its Overseas Aid to reach its promised amount in 2015, it’s still lagging behind the percentage contributions of the Scandanavian countries.

Does this mean that secular values are more pro-poor? Is this an indictment or an indication that there is something engrained in Christian consciousness which is more reluctant to be a handout culture? Fascinating questions and the debate is set to run. Overseas Aid is increasingly a controversial issue – but let us never forget that keeping it high and effective is, unlike football, a matter of life and death.

Joel Edwards is a Director for Micah Challenge International, an Initiative of the WEA, and a regular broadcaster with the BBC. He is also a former commissioner with the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the UK.