British aid retreats from idealism

Published in The East African on November 8, 2010

Why, at the same time as slashing £81 billion off public spending by cutting welfare allowances and shedding half a million jobs, has Britain’s Conservative-Liberal government pledged to keep increasing aid abroad?

By 2015, Britain’s aid budget will rise to £9 billion. Staunchly pro-Conservative UK newspapers are hotly protesting that “charity begins at home.” Many Britons agree.

There is indeed something curious about a government that regards welfare support at home as bad for growth (by distorting market incentives) yet resists much the same arguments abroad—as put by aid critics like Dambisa Moyo of Zambia, Franklin Cudjoe of Ghana and Uganda’s Andrew Mwenda. What is the underlying logic?

A clue lies in a new Defence and Security Review which proposes doubling the £1.9 billion of British aid spent in “fragile and conflicted states.” This suggests determination to harness future aid more closely to Britain’s perceived geopolitical and security interests. The extra funds for “conflicted states” exactly match the projected aid increase.

“Mission drift” from the poverty reduction objectives of the UK’s 2002 International Development Act is not new. A year after enacting that law, the then Labour government devoted a considerable chunk of Department for International Development (DFID) funds to post-war reconstruction in Iraq. As a result, DFID had to trim budgets originally intended for China. (Why China, whose economy was already booming? Because tens of millions of Chinese remained poor, China was regarded as making effective use of aid, and Britain, like the rest of the West, wanted to influence the sort of place that China would become.)

Now Afghanistan heads a list of “conflicted states” that also includes Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

In bolstering “state building” efforts in these countries, Britain is following the lead of the United States. US military strategists stress “winning hearts and minds” by delivering development at the same time as killing insurgents. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called, in January, for development to become “a central pillar of all that we do in foreign policy" and has launched a Defence and Diplomacy Review that will reiterate this theme when it is published next month.

There is, for sure, plenty of poverty in war zones, enabling British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to argue that “We’re mad if we don’t put money into mending broken states where so many of the problems of poverty come from.”

Yet the mending efforts have so far produced the two most corrupt states on the planet, according to Transparency International: Somalia at number one, Afghanistan at number two. Iraq is just behind at number four.

It has also now emerged that the West’s “allies” in Kabul have been receiving cash not just from the Europe and America but also from Iran; while “allies” in Pakistan’s security apparatus have notoriously divided loyalties.

Meanwhile, the militarization of aid in Afghanistan has drawn protests from international NGOs who argue that delivering medicines in combat fatigues exacerbates conflict and endangers communities.

This doesn’t presage well for folding humanitarian aid into defence and foreign policy priorities. And if it all ends in tears it won’t be for the first time.

Makerere University Professor Mahmood Mamdani pointed out in his book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim that the United States poured tens of millions of dollars into Afghanistan during “the last act of the Cold War” with the apparent aim of making life tough for the Soviets then occupying that country. USAID projects shamefully included a programme to teach children numeracy by counting up how many Russians they could kill with AK47 bullets.

In recruiting and training mujahideen warriors and international sympathisers, meanwhile, America helped incubate precisely the global jihadist networks that the West has since struggled to suppress.

Yet what we hear today from Western leaders is a reprise of the Domino Theory from the days of the Cold War: that if we don’t contain and stamp out Terror, it will spread.

I am not arguing that the West is out to maintain “global hegemony” at all costs. Westerners’ thinking is in fact much more mixed and muddled. Many aid practitioners have worked tirelessly to make aid effective, see leveling-up through development as essential to world peace, and are ready to embrace a “multi-polar” world as developing countries “rise.” But these idealists are often out-gunned by old-school “realists” locked in narrower conceptions of national interest.

Britain, now led by a Prime Minister whose favourite sound-bite is “our country,” has just slipped a bit further away from idealism.

So what does this mean for Africa?

Patrick Watt, Save the Children’s Director of Development, told The Guardian (London) that “the countries that will lose out will be poor but stable countries like Ghana or Tanzania that will potentially see a slight reduction in aid but almost certainly won't see any increase. You will end up in a slightly perverse situation . . . where countries with a lot of poor people that happen not to be on the geopolitical radar are losing out.”

That may be optimistic. If the realists prevail we will see a ramping up of strategic alliances à la Cold War, driven not only by Terror concerns but also, increasingly, by “strategic competition” with China. All of which is likely to create tasty opportunities for corruptible political elites, strengthening the case of Moyo et al that aid does more harm than good.