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Fri, 26 February 2021

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The role of UK foreign aid in eradicating polio

The role of UK foreign aid in eradicating polio
3 min read

Marking World Immunization Week, Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns says that while she does not believe the UK should spend a fix amount of GNI on foreign aid, a lot can be learned from India's polio vaccination campaign.


International aid is always a controversial topic.

On the doorstep during last year’s election people were constantly asking me why the Government was committing to spending 0.7% of our GNI on foreign aid.

As someone who has always been skeptical about this I believe a fixed target means there is a real risk that money is not being spent effectively. I’m glad that our fantastic International Development Secretary Justine Greening, herself an accountant by trade, has led a root-and-branch review of DfID spending with great success, with the Department now winning awards for its financial prudence and accountability.

While I applaud the Government’s work to ensure money is spent properly I still do not believe that legislation requiring the UK to spend a fixed proportion of our Gross National Income on development is the right thing to do. I want to see tangible results from our spending abroad.

I was incredibly lucky to be able to travel to India a few weeks ago to see the work the UK has helped to fund to fight polio. This project has been an incredible success and is one example of well-targeted, effective spending.

In the 1970s polio was a fact of life. Even though rates of the disease were declining rapidly, nearly half a million people living in the West had been paralysed by the disease. In the developing world the situation was far worse. Despite an effective vaccine, polio ran rampant.

Today, the situation could not be more different. Thanks to highly-targeted, data-driven vaccination programmes, rates have fallen dramatically. Last year there were just 74 cases around the world. Even in hugely complex settings, polio has been eliminated.

Few countries are more complex than India, but the country has been polio free since 2011.

I am proud that the UK has led the world in efforts to eradicate polio, and that through our efforts the end of the disease is in sight.

The scale of the effort required to achieve this feat is bewildering. I was struck by the extraordinary coordination between a number of stakeholders including UNICEF, the World Health Organisation, the Indian government itself and local communities, schools, religious groups, and charities.  This coordination has enabled the most marginalised – slum-dwellers and migrants – to be reached. Building trust with community leaders has played a key role. It is an approach that, if replicated for other vaccination campaigns, could transform child health in India and around the world.

The UK Department for International Development has played a key role even though the UK no longer gives financial aid to India which is now a middle-income country. We share skills and expertise and have helped establish a corporate social responsibility programme.

Anyone is justified in being sceptical of arbitrary spending targets for UK aid, but fully supportive of the principles of helping our neighbours. The Conservative government has improved the transparency, monitoring and control of how we spend our aid budget but we must remain vigilant against corruption and malpractice. Where projects are inefficient or ineffective they should be shut down and, where possible, the money recouped.

But we should also celebrate the progress that UK aid spending is helping to achieve. In human history we have only eradicated one disease: smallpox. Now, thanks to UK leadership, the end of polio is in sight. There can be no more worthwhile investment.

Read the most recent article written by Andrea Jenkyns MP - In a risky situation, pragmatism should prevail over ideology

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