Britain must protect its foreign aid budget from "forces of insularity and xenophobia", the deputy prime minister said on Wednesday after suffering a humiliating defeat in last week's European elections to a far-right party campaigning for cuts to the budget.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP) swept to victory in European parliamentary elections, beating Britain's three mainstream parties. Cutting foreign aid is one of UKIP's key policies, as well as pulling Britain out of the European Union and curbing immigration from EU countries.
The elections were held shortly after the government announced it had reached an international target to spend 0.7 percent of Gross National Income on foreign aid, the first member of the Group of 20 wealthy countries to do so.
Prime Minister David Cameron,facing anger in his ruling Conservative Party over the rising aid budget, last year mooted the idea of diverting some of it to defence and security, and UKIP leader Nigel Farage said earlier this year some of it should be spent on helping flood victims in southwest England.
"The myths about Britain's development commitments peddled vigorously by aid sceptics are sadly now rooted in many people's imaginations," Nick Clegg told a packed hall in London on Wednesday. He referred to a survey which found that the British public thought the government spent 20 percent of its entire budget on foreign aid.
"The help we provide is the hallmark of a Britain that is open, compassionate and engaged in the world, an expression of who we are. It must be defended with renewed energy and vigour against the forces of insularity and xenophobia which are now on the march," he said.
The 0.7 percent figure was first agreed in 1970 by the U.N. General Assembly. Industrialised countries committed themselves to reach this goal by the middle of the decade. In May 2005, EU member states pledged to meet the target by 2015.
Only Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Luxembourg and Britain have so far reached the target.
Clegg's Liberal Democrat party is pushing for the 0.7 percent figure to be enshrined in British law.
POOREST LIVE IN FAST-GROWING ECONOMIES
The world can no longer be carved up along the old dividing lines of rich and poor countries, north versus south, Clegg said.
Most of the world's poorest people now live in countries whose economies are growing faster than Britain's, leading to "legitimate questions" about whether they should be receiving aid, he said.
Nigeria is a case in point, he said.
Many countries, including Britain, have offered to help track down the more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by the militant group Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.
But some say that once the girls are found, Britain - the only country working on development projects in the north - should scrap aid to Nigeria, Clegg said.
They argue that the country's economic growth, vast oil reserves and investment in satellite technology are proof that it should sort out its own problems.
But U.N. figures show that more than half Nigeria's population live below the poverty line, earning less than $1.25 a day.
Living conditions in the north "are as tough as in any war zone", Clegg said. "What Nigeria shows us is that you can't judge a country's progress by its economic statistics alone.
"... History tells us that if we walk away from a country too early ... things just get worse. That's why I don't believe it's right that we just arbitrarily cut off our help when (a country) hits a certain GDP target," he added.