Libby Smith is Head of Advocacy at The Coalition for Global Prosperity
Barely a day goes by where we don’t see horrific pictures showing the devastating impact of war splashed across our front pages. We are facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II and yet Uganda, home to over 1 million refugees, rarely makes the front pages.
A daily exodus of mostly women and children are fleeing armed conflict, hunger and sexual violence in South Sudan resulting in what the United Nations has called Africa’s biggest humanitarian crisis. The sad reality is that 61% of these refugees are children, many of whom have arrived at the camps alone.
Yet it is here, in the midst of such hardship that I met such brilliant, perseverant children, keen to get an education, make a life for themselves and return to South Sudan. Children like 13-year-old Isaac, who arrived at the camp with just his sister and wants to grow up to be a doctor “We need to be educated so we can return home and build a peaceful future for South Sudan”.
Isaac is right, we cannot allow an entire generation of South Sudanese children to become casualties of the civil war, after all it is these children who will pick up the broken pieces of their home and rebuild the South Sudan of tomorrow.
British aid is helping them to do just that. On a recent visit to Uganda with Shadow International Development Minister Preet Gill MP and international children’s charity World Vision UK, I felt incredibly proud to see British investment helping to provide these children with shelter, food, education, sanitary pads and vital mental and emotional support.
The emotional scars and immense trauma these children have suffered are unimaginably, with many having previously been recruited as child soldiers. We met Abdo, aged 14, who arrived at the camp when he was just 12 years old, both his parents had been killed, making him responsible for taking care of four of his younger siblings. Taking care of four young children is a huge responsibility for anyone, yet alone a 14-year-old boy with not a penny to his name. We don’t know what happened to make Abdo an orphan, too traumatised to speak about his past, but it was clear that he had suffered immense emotional scars. It is UK Aid and fantastic NGOs like World Vision UK who are helping to provide children like Abdo with the emotional, as well as physical, support they need to deal with what they have been through. Providing a safe place where children can recover and rebuild their lives.
Britain’s work here should be a source of great national pride. UK aid has provided food for over 1 million refugees, immunised 146,000 under-fives and got over 2,000 children into a classroom, with World Vision alone providing 25,000 children with child protection services and 360,000 people with food assistance.
Britain does this because it is morally the right thing to do and demonstrates that we do not neglect our duty to the world’s poorest. The refugee crisis in East Africa cannot be ignored and the conflict in South Sudan will not end tomorrow. We can either wait for things to get worse, provoking an even bigger refugee crisis or we can help people rebuild their lives. Everyone I spoke to in the camp wants to return home to South Sudan when it is safe to do so, they do not want to venture any further from their homes than they have already had to. Yet without the crucial support UK aid, and other international bodies, are providing these refugees will face starvation and be forced to migrate further afield in order to survive. Helping to provide a safe haven in Uganda reduces the push factors which can lead to onward migration to Europe and helps prevent vulnerable individuals falling victim to criminal gangs and people smugglers.
At a time when the UK is redefining its role in the world we have a unique opportunity to decide what kind of country we want to be. Theresa May has called for a “truly Global Britain that reaches beyond the border of Europe” and as a Labour member, I agree. Labour is the internationalist party and whether you voted for or against Brexit, we must now use this opportunity to forge an even more positive, global future for ourselves and UK Aid must be a key part of this.
Labour is a broad church with a wide range of views, which we openly discuss and debate to the credit of our party. Yet there are few issues that garner such support across the party as international development. Internationalism means a lot to the Labour Party – it is our belief in not being defined and restricted by your start in life and our solidarity with those beyond our shores. Labour doesn’t always get it right and I would be the first to agree with criticisms about how far Labour is prepared to condemn regressive regimes around the world. However, we are united in our stance that Britain cannot neglect its duty to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.
You wouldn’t know it from our newspapers, but Britain is a global leader in development. The work we do is hugely respected across the world, and the Department for International Development (DFID) is regarded as one of the world’s most transparent, effective aid donors in the world. UK aid is a key part of the UK’s global offering, flying the flag for Britain around the world. Something that is more important now than ever before.
We may be leaving the European Union but that doesn’t mean we can pull up the drawbridge and turn our backs on the world. Far from it, we must use this moment to go out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike, forging an even more positive, global future for ourselves and the UK’s partnership with Uganda is a key example of this.
That doesn’t mean we can be complacent. Recent events show us how important it is to scrutinise every partner we work with and every program we fund. Wasting aid and funding corruption and exploitation is criminal and we must be thorough in routing this out to ensure our aid is invested carefully, strategically and coherently. As ultimately it is children like Isaac and Abdo who will suffer the consequences of badly invested aid.
I would also never try to claim that aid is a silver bullet – it’s not. On its own it cannot solve all the world’s problems, our free trade agenda, active diplomacy and defence strategies are also vital. But as I saw in Bidi Bidi, when invested and implemented well and reaching those in need, it is an incredible force for good in the world and demonstrates that Britain really is Great when it boldly champions its values both at home and abroad.