Don’t just defend aid – make it just
When David Cameron set out to de-toxify the ‘nasty party’, as the Conservatives were often labelled by opponents in the 1990s, the pledge to maintain aid spending was top of his list. Many in his party bristled with anger about the policy, egged-on by right-wing tabloids, who have waged a war on the aid budget ever since.
This week, Rishi Sunak jettisoned the pledge to retain the 0.7 per cent commitment and slashed the aid budget. In the middle of a pandemic, which will see extreme poverty balloon and inequality further sky rocket next year, to cut the one budget which could potentially ameliorate this a little, is beyond callous. The nasty party is well and truly back.
But the cuts are only part of the story. Also this week, Dominic Raab announced a new strategy detailing how the remaining cash will be spent. Underlying some fine words about climate change, health and education, this strategy ties aid spending more centrally to British interests around the world; poverty is barely mentioned. Raab says in future ‘we will focus only on countries where the UK’s development, security and economic interests align’ building ‘trading and investment’ links, and ‘helping’ countries to ‘create better investment environments’ (read: strip away any obstacles to our businesses being able to make money from their country).
This takes us back to the bad old days before the Department for International Development was established, when development funds were spent on dubious projects more about boosting British exports than fighting poverty. My organization took the government to court in the 1990s, when they used aid to fund a dam in Malaysia, atrocious value for money in itself, on the basis that Malaysia purchase British arms in return.
This undermines the whole purpose of aid, which at its best should be a contribution – albeit a small one – to a global redistribution of wealth. In turn, this undermines public belief in aid, which is seen as a slush fund that benefits the richest, not the poorest. How else can Nigel Farage claim the aid is some sort of elite conspiracy to rip off ordinary people in Britain and get a serious hearing?
In coming months, we will see a ratcheting-up of atrocious aid spending. Those who support the aid budget should not shy away from criticizing this spending in the hope the public won’t notice. There are a few trends in particular we need to watch out for.
First, aid will increasingly be used to help expand the role of the City of London post-Brexit, as it tries to transition from the premier European financial hub to a financial hub for developing countries; this is well underway. Priti Patel, as development secretary, opened the London Stock Exchange one morning in March 2017 hailing a new a partnership with the financial sector to ‘generate much needed business investment in developing countries’.
Now, investment can indeed be useful, if governments on the receiving end can regulate, tax and control it. The City of London, however, is known worldwide for its low regulation, low tax status. The last thing impoverished countries need is more unregulated finance, sucking wealth out of their countries.
Second, the British government has repeatedly suggested aid should be used to help facilitate trade deals with developing countries. There is a pot of money set aside for this very goal, which helps countries ‘promote economic reforms’ and ‘remove barriers to trade’. Given that these reforms are usually about sweeping away regulations and protections which get in the way of investor profits, this is yet another fund that seems more likely to increase, rather than decrease poverty and inequality.
Third, successive governments have used development funds to aid business, rather than the poorest. The idea being that public money can be used to leverage private investment into developing countries. The reality is that all too often aid money is used simply to support privatization schemes, and open up new markets for likes of Nestle, Mars, Syngenta and Unilever across Africa. This simply confuses development with capitalism.
Fighting for an aid budget to be spent on more of the above is counter-productive. As important as fighting to restore the aid budget is, it will only achieve what it should – and indeed will only regain the support of ordinary people in Britain – if it is re-envisioned.
Aid should not be about building Britain’s power, soft or otherwise. We’re one of the wealthiest countries in the world, even though many don’t feel it. Aid should help redistribute power and wealth so everyone in the world can enjoy education, healthcare and social projection as a right. Neither is aid a matter of charity, any more than it is charity that we should pay our taxes to provide council housing and social protection, regardless of whether we ourselves use those things or not. To this end, the term aid is deeply unhelpful and should be changed.
What’s more, aid can only ever be a small part of the solution. As things stand, even well-spent aid is less about redistribution than inadequate compensation for the damage Britain does around the world. The aid budget pales in comparison with the amount our financial system drains from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Aid doesn’t even begin to make up for the damage Britain does.
The answer is not to endlessly increase aid, but to stop doing the damage – to rein in our corporations and our financial sector, to crack down on the network of tax havens (with the City of London at its centre), to stop forcing dodgy trade deals on countries and to prevent our banks bleeding countries dry by irresponsible lending.
Many of us are doubtless horrified by the opinion poll showing significant support for the cut in aid spending. But we shouldn’t be surprised. The aid budget has been mercilessly attacked by the rightwing tabloids, used to fund ideologically driven projects by government ministers, and unhelpfully framed as a form of charity even by many well-intentioned champions. We’re now at a crossroads. Either we accept the nasty party has finally got its way, or we remember what ‘aid’ was supposed to be about – and build the sort of movement which can win it.
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