The Foreign Aid cut is wrong, but we need a rethink of international solidarity.

The UK government has won its vote in parliament to cut back on the long held 0.7% GNI commitment to foreign aid to 0.5%, in direct breach of their manifesto commitment, winning the vote by 333 to 298 votes, after the government managed to placate many of the original backbench Tory rebels before they allowed it to go to a vote, so as to spare themselves to embarrassment of a parliamentary defeat when they have an 80 seat majority. So, it’s done, what now?

Well, it goes without saying the logic behind this cut is deeply flawed, and the moral implications are profoundly wrong. This is red meat to the hard right Tory backbenchers and Tory base, and it’s actually massively supported by the public, so in terms of public opinion this is a populist thing for the government to do. They’ll happily throw vulnerable people around the world under the bus for a political image that in economic terms means nil. What this cut means is that the government is arguing they need to make this meaningless, laughably tiny cut in spending because of the mammoth economic shock of COVID; forgetting the whole point of 0.7% is it grows and shrinks with our economic circumstances. But far worse than this nonsense from the govt, is the fact this means everyone is accepting the framing that we need to cut back on spending in one place to fund another; it’s race to the bottom, austerity steeped nonsense, after this year the “no magic money tree” lie has shown itself to be the lie it always was.

What are the opposition doing? They seem to be coming from a very orthodox liberal point of view, talking up “British values” “moral responsibility” and “influence around the world”, with their argument accepting the framing that we need to cut back, but saying we need to spend this to exert our influence around the world. In other words, it isn’t about the vulnerable, it’s about projecting our own imperialistic delusions of grandeur onto those dying in the global south. The British left has a unique position to take here, and it must be a wholesale rejection of the nativist austerity offered by the right when it comes to making this cut, but also the liberal imperialistic logic behind the opposition to this cut; this cut is wrong, but we should be aiming to rethink and overhaul our approach to these things, not replicate the current system.

Let’s remember that while this cut is a direct middle finger to the vulnerable around the world, what we do with our aid budget has often been to further our own economic and political aims, not help the vulnerable. Not to mention, we should be spending so much more than 0.5%, or 0.7%, what with being one of the richest countries in the world (and yes, so should the other wealthy countries, often with even smaller aid budgets than us!). We spend somewhere around £12 billion on foreign aid, while £40 billion goes into the military, and £120 billion is spaffed up the wall on Trident. We don’t need most of this! A country in our geopolitical position doesn’t need an armed forces, it might need a domestic defence force, but even that is questionable these days, and we certainly don’t need a nuclear deterrent. None of this makes us safer, and while we spend all this, millions around the world languish in poverty, and we have our own veterans sleeping on the street.

The argument from the Johnson government that we need to cut aid so as to “take care of our own” would be hilarious if it wasn’t so pathetic; this government has neglected and actively harmed its own people for a decade, and continues to let so many children grow up in poverty, they don’t give a toss about their own, any more than they do the vulnerable around the world.

So let’s look at what our aid budget actually does, and if we really are doing what we should be, which is giving no strings attached financial help and support to poor countries on an equal basis, with no interference in how they do what they need done in terms of helping their people. Well, we promote horrendous Public Private Partnerships around the world, basically letting private companies build schools and infrastructure in these countries, as a Socialist Worker piece from 2018 put it “PPP projects see private firms build major infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals or roads in the Global South. The West stumps up some money to support the projects, but the local governments are then left with large bills to pay off in the future”. Doesn’t sound particularly nice or progressive to me, and it leads to prohibitively expensive bills for these countries in the end and private contractors profiteering off their new infrastructure, often not built to the right standard anyway,

Again looking at this article we see “One of the biggest winners of aid in Africa is Bridge International Academies (BIA). Headquartered in London, BIA is backed by the British government, the World Bank, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft boss Bill Gates. Western-backed private schools are becoming a huge market in Africa with one in four pupils expected to be in private education by 2021”, this is all very concerning, and in the end it means these things cost much more and are of a lower standard than a genuine publicly owned and run education system. We’re exporting privatised infrastructure and marketized education around the world, using our aid as a long hand to enforce neoliberal policymaking beyond our borders to the benefit of the western billionaire class and a small elite in the poor nations and at the expense of the people and governments around the world that need help.

Look deeper, and you’ll see the Adam Smith Institute's offshoot called Adam Smith International (which lobbies for free market policymaking and against government intervention) benefits from foreign aid funding by wealthy nations! So we’re blatantly funding rightwing organisations to propagandise around the world to the tune of literally hundreds of millions of pounds at taxpayers expense. A ludicrous waste that will only cause more suffering in these places, since free market policies are the last thing the global south economies need to develop or grow (and let’s not forget our historical and more recent roles in leaving these countries plundered and impoverished, that’s on us). And of course we also fund and rely mostly on NGOs when it comes to foreign aid, and as the Socialist Worker piece put it “At the height of the “war on terror” US defence secretary Colin Powell said that “NGOs are such a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team”. Clauses in Afghan contracts say NGOs “should support military efforts in communities by helping to ‘hold’ areas after they are cleared” or “direct support of ongoing and planned counterinsurgency efforts””.

In essence, we shouldn’t be seduced by the isolationistic hypocrisy of the Tories, nor the liberal interventionism of Labour and their neoliberal mates in the Lib Dems and SNP. Real international aid would be reparations to the tune of billions for the global south, collectively handed over by those economies that most benefited from colonial plunder; and it would mean getting global capital markets to stop acting like vultures and get off these nation’s lawns.

The piece quoted from for facts and figures can be found here https://socialistworker.co.uk/art/46132/The%20history%20of%20foreign%20aid%20is%20steeped%20in%20imperialism.

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Toby Lipatti-Mesme

Toby Lipatti-Mesme

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Insightful and innovative UK journalism and commentary, from Toby Lipatti-Mesme.