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Spending on Syria crisis is ‘UK aid at its best’

Britain’s failure to win support for sanctions against Syria and Russia has raised questions about its diplomatic might. When it comes to providing aid for those affected by the war, the UK has also sought to lead international efforts, with better results. The UK government has committed £2.46bn in aid to the Syria crisis since 2012, its largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis and considerably more than comparable European countries such as France. Its hosting of a conference in London last year galvanised other donors, although results at a follow-up meeting in Brussels this month were less impressive. “It’s been great to see substantial amounts of UK aid for what is a crisis on a massive scale,” said Shaheen Chughtai, a policy adviser at Oxfam. One, an anti-poverty campaign co-founded by U2 singer Bono, has called the spending “UK aid at its best”. The focus on Syria comes at a time when the UK’s aid budget, the world’s third biggest, is under intense political scrutiny. British schools, healthcare and welfare budgets are all being cut, while the aid budget remains legally pegged at 0.7 per cent of gross national product. Ukip has proposed cutting aid by more than 80 per cent — or £13bn a year — after 2020. However, while cuts in aid spending are backed by some news organisations, international aid secretary Priti Patel says Britain’s generous approach is key to its “global brand” after Brexit. Ms Patel’s department became involved in Syria from an almost standing start. In 2010, before the Arab spring, Syria accounted for just 0.02 per cent of UK bilateral aid. “It was a second-world country. It wouldn’t normally be on the humanitarian radar,” said Andrew Mitchell, international development secretary at the time. Today, UK assistance is focused on educating refugees in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, as well as helping them find jobs. As of February, the government estimated that “more than half a million” children in Syria were in education thanks to UK aid, while 75,000 have been enrolled in schools in Jordan and Lebanon. Some 37,000 job permits were issued to Syrians in Jordan last year. That still amounts to a fraction of the estimated 11m Syrians who have been forced from their homes by the civil war. The cross-party international development select committee of MPs did recommend in 2015 that more of the UK’s aid be delivered in the form of cash handouts to refugees, on the basis that they are likely to spend the money more efficiently than international donors. The MPs also recommended that CDC Group, the private investment arm of DfID, looked at investing in projects that benefited Syrian refugees but Dfid has opted not to expand CDC’s remit to make this possible. Mr Mitchell said UK aid would be more effective if parliament had not blocked military action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in 2013. “Obviously there are huge constraints that fetter the humanitarian community and we are not immune from them,” he said, pointing to the lack of safe and no-fly zones within Syria. The government argues that aid for the Syrian crisis helps reduce migration to Europe, thereby responding to a key public concern. Numbers of migrants arriving via the eastern Mediterranean have dropped sharply since 2015, thanks in particular to a deal between the EU and Turkey. At the same time, Britain has been resettling refugees who have arrived in Europe but its target, of resettling 20,000 by 2020, is very modest compared with the contributions of Germany and others. Mrs May also went back on a promise to resettle 3,000 child refugees; only 350 will now be accepted. “These are very small numbers we are talking about,” said Mr Chughtai. “A starting place would be for refugees who are already in the UK to be reunited with family members.” Resettlement may, however, reduce spending elsewhere. Under OECD rules, spending on refugees in their first year after arrival can be counted as overseas aid. Figures published last week show that 10 per cent of all overseas development aid is now spent on resettling refugees within donor countries. More than one-fifth of aid spending in Austria, Germany, Greece and Italy is now on refugee costs. The underlying difficulty is that the Syrian crisis comes at a time when western budgets are stretched. There are also many other demands on development funds — from the recent Ebola crisis in west Africa to the ongoing famine in South Sudan to long-term projects to tackle climate change. The UK government is committed for now to maintain aid spending at its current level until 2020, but the crises in Syria and elsewhere are likely to require funding well beyond then.

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