Britain is to become, in the words of International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell, a “foreign aid superpower”. The Department for International Development’s (DfID) budget of £7.9 billion is one of a few select areas of government spending being ring-fenced from the coalition’s cuts programme, and David Cameron recently committed to increasing the budget still further.
It is known that a lot of DfID money is misspent, often given to despots without any real oversight (or serving to worsen the situation the aid is trying to repair, as occurred in the case of Ethiopia). However, this cannot and should not obscure the fact that some of it is spent well and, in those instances, it saves lives. It is difficult to argue against £814 million over four years being spent on vaccinating young children in the developing world from contracting easily preventable diseases, for instance. The issue is not whether there should be an aid budget; the issue is how large that budget should be and how it is spent, within both the context of what it is designed to achieve, as well as the wider fiscal context across government – and it is on this score that this new initiative will be seen as callous, and wrongheaded.
There are many reasons for this. Even on its own terms of providing relief and sustenance to those most in need, the policy is injudicious: the money itself is inefficiently spent, with only a portion of what is allocated actually reaching those who truly need it; in addition, any aid budget is but a drop in the ocean of misery for the developing world – whilst serious effort has to be made to sustain this budget in an atmosphere of fiscal austerity, that money’s impact, statistically, is negligible. Aid also often forms a central aspect of domestic politics in countries who consistently receive aid, warping their democratic processes.
Indeed, some would claim (in a few instances, legitimately), that such aid provision constitutes a renewed form of colonialism, with domestic political life being determined to an extent by the beneficence of Europeans. And of course, the criterion for receiving aid is itself broken, resulting in massive and unfair inequalities in the provision of aid, which is often determined more by white guilt and the legacy of colonialism (combined with raw mathematical equations which benefit states with particular demographics) rather than sending it where it is most needed.
Hence, existing nuclear power and future world superpower, India, receives £280 million every year from DfID (which presumably isn’t spent on the Vikrant Class aircraft carrier currently under construction at the Cochin Shipyard, or the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, which pioneers the Indian Space Programme), whereas Chad, a country in the throes of a humanitarian crisis since 2001, made worse by an endemic civil war and some half a million refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, receives absolutely nothing from DfID.
But, there are a couple of differences between these two states – firstly, Chad used to be French, so it is considered to be ‘France’s problem’ – those swathes of red and blue found on maps of 19th Century Africa still largely determine the approach toward aid provision in the 21st Century. Secondly, there are perceived ‘national interests’ in India, which are absent in Chad – Britain wants access to Indian markets; we want Indian industrial moguls to invest in Britain. Because of this economic interest, India wins, and Chad loses. It’s almost criminally callous in approach – but when you’re dispensing a finite budget to a world where need is seemingly infinite, these are the sort of decisions one gets drawn into.
Of course, putting the altruistic argument aside, this talk of foreign aid instead furthering the ‘national interest’ is somewhat attractive to conservatives; the reasoning goes, ok, so it is misspent, but it also opens markets, and secures British jobs. But even on this rationale, it is inept. Firstly, whilst the notion of an ‘aid superpower’ is nice, it is also conceptually bankrupt. The implication is that the aid budget advances British ‘soft power’ – that after doling out taxpayers money, we receive their enduring gratitude, and perhaps a lucrative trade deal or two. But this rarely actually happens.
Developing states generally resist, as best they can, foreign involvement in their economies, opting instead for protectionism and domestic industrial and commercial development. There isn’t a sliding scale of resistance, where placement is determined by how much aid that company’s home government gave last year. And those such as India, who willingly open up their economies to foreign competition, do not seem to base economic decisions on how much money has been received in foreign aid. And the idea that aid garners some sort of lasting goodwill is also fanciful – the largest single foreign aid donor in absolute terms is, and has been for decades, the United States – a state which is hardly considered a paragon of virtue in the developing world.
And finally, but most importantly – it is important to consider the wider context in which this ring-fencing is occurring. Britain is now involved in two wars of choice – one (Afghanistan) chosen by the previous government, the other (Libya), chosen by the current government. Both of these operations are viable, and are being fought for the right reasons. However, it is the height of cold-blooded callousness for a government – particularly a Conservative-led government – to impose such stringent cuts on the Armed Services, whilst ring-fencing the DfID budget. This in effect implies that the government holds the lives of those living in the developing world of higher import than those British servicemen that this government has itself willingly sent into harm’s way in Libya, and continues to send into harm’s way in Afghanistan.
Liam Fox, Defence Secretary and unexpected trouble-maker for David Cameron, recently announced a programme to cut back the bureaucracy at the MoD. This is long overdue, and there is a lot more waste at the MoD, both in terms of personnel as well as procurement, which needs culling – but it is only a matter of time until British soldiers who otherwise would have lived, are lost, owing to cutbacks in the defence budget impacting on the quality of kit servicemen have access to. For the foreign aid budget to be increased in such circumstances is frankly shameful.
The Strategic Defence and Security Review does not need to be rewritten. But when engaged in two wars, the country desperately needs not just the usual rhetorical respect for the Armed Forces we are used to, but practical respect, which is best represented by its budget – or David Cameron can expect a lot more generals to do a lot more talking and, in time, the complete degradation of the British Armed Forces, by its own government.