Lifestyle Economics

£44.6 million of UK foreign aid budget used to export the nanny state overseas, finds new IEA report

IEA publishes "Nanny State on Tour"

The amount of UK foreign aid spent on nanny state interventions has skyrocketed, according to a new report from the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Foreign aid has been instrumental in controlling and eradicating infectious conditions abroad, but British public health organisations have increasingly used the budget for lifestyle interventions in foreign countries – and the taxpayer is footing the bill.

The report, Nanny State On Tour, found that £44.6 million of UK taxpayers’ money has been spent on nanny state programmes between 2005 – 2018, with over 80% of that money spent since 2016. The three biggest recipients were China (£7.9 million), India (£2.2 million) and Colombia (£1.8 million).

The growing percentage of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) spent by non-DfID departments has coincided with a growth in money spent on nanny state interventions rather than poverty reduction. While DfID is bound by law to put poverty reduction at the heart of its programmes, other departments are not and, as a result, spend a greater proportion of their funds in middle-income countries and on ‘lifestyle’ projects.

The report highlights numerous foreign aid budget spending projects designed to change behaviour, including:

  • A £6.8 million ‘research unit’ to study how much salt Chinese home cooks add to their food

  • A £1.55 million research project in India using text messages to persuade people to drink less alcohol

  • £348,108 evaluating a sugar tax in Chile

  • And almost £800,000 used to train Bangladeshi Imams to literally preach tobacco control

In order to justify these interventions, the report reveals how organisations have been changing definitions to include nanny state objectives. The World Health Organisation (WHO) – the organisation through which a third of Britain’s funding for lifestyle interventions abroad is spent – regularly describes obesity and tobacco use as ‘epidemics’ despite neither fitting the dictionary definition of ‘epidemic’ which requires the disease to be contagious.

Over £600,000 of British taxpayers’ money was used to fund a programme tackling ‘malnutrition’ in Indian children, much of which was spent tackling childhood obesity in India because WHO has defined malnutrition as ‘deficiencies, excesses, or imbalances’ in diet.

The report also analyses the cost-effectiveness of nanny-state interventions abroad and finds the foreign aid budget would have a more significant impact on life expectancy and quality of life if it was spent on more conventional programmes.

Examples in the paper include:

  • £5.3 million spent tightening anti-tobacco laws in five African nations. This could have paid for 3 million insecticide-based bed nets to prevent malaria – a disease which, in 2017, infected 201 million people worldwide and was attributable to 404,500 deaths

  • £599,065 spent on an anti-smoking intervention in India. This could have delivered 3,700 HPV vaccinations to Indian girls, reducing their lifetime risk of cervical cancer

Mark Tovey, author of the Nanny State on Tour, said:

“The British government is generous in its foreign aid spending and the public are broadly supportive, but anti-obesity drives and stop smoking campaigns do not fit in with the common conception of aid spending, which includes feeding the hungry and tackling infectious diseases. 

“In the world’s most impoverished countries, a small amount of money can have an enormous impact. Misallocating UK aid money on expansive, nanny-state projects instead of targeted and effective programmes costs lives.” 

Christopher Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said:

“It is well known that the foreign aid budget has been misused in the past. This report shows that nanny state activists and academics have been diverting millions of pounds towards their pet projects under the guide of international development.

“Foreign aid money is supposed to help the poorest people in the world, not to feather the nest of wealthy academics.”

Notes to editors:

For media enquiries please contact Emma Revell, Head of Communications: 07931 698 246.

To read the full report, Nanny State on Tour, click here.

Mark Tovey is a freelance researcher who focuses on health issues. He graduated in 2016 with a first-class degree in economics from the University of Sussex. He is the co-author of two discussion papers for the Institute of Economic Affairs on the net cost to taxpayers of smoking and obesity.

For further IEA reading on food reformulation, click here.

For further IEA reading on paternalism, click here.

The mission of the Institute of Economic Affairs is to improve understanding of the fundamental institutions of a free society by analysing and expounding the role of markets in solving economic and social problems.

The IEA is a registered educational charity and independent of all political parties.