Why the Daily Mail is right that aid money is wasted, but wrong that we must reduce it


13 April 2015

This weekend I raised concerns about Britain’s aid spending in the Daily Mail. The Mail is right to be scandalised that more than £1 billion of the aid budget ends up in British and American private consultancy firms, even more so when you realise that those consultants are often ideologically driven to put private interests ahead of public benefit. That politicians involved in making decisions on aid receive campaign donations from those same consultancies, only adds to the grubbiness.

But for Global Justice Now, our solution is quite different from that put forward by the Mail. The problem is not an excess of generosity by successive British governments who have too much sympathy, but not enough intelligence to make our taxes work to reduce poverty. Nor can the problem be laid, as it so often is implicitly, purely at the feet of a corrupt African elite. 

Rather, the problem is that aid is administered in a very similar way to the rest of our economy, which puts the interests of big business and the market ahead of those of ordinary people, decent public services and human rights.

The Mail believes the increase in the aid budget is at odds with austerity, asking why would the government spend so much on foreigners when people here are suffering? But even if you accept the need for cuts, a decent society would shelter the poorest and most vulnerable from those cuts. The whole purpose of foreign aid is that it should primarily benefit those at the bottom of the economic pecking order. It should therefore be the last thing we look to reduce.

The Mail would prefer us to spend money on “Britain's fleet of Harrier jets”, a strange choice given the chaos and poverty our foreign wars have left the world. But even a more genuinely difficult decision, say between a new school in Ghana or hospitals here in the UK, misses the point about austerity. The decimation of our public services in recent years isn’t driven by some abstract lack of money. We now have more private control of our society than at any time since the Second World War, and this has continued in boom times and bust times. Look at those examples of privatisation, from healthcare to the railways, and it becomes clear that the state is spending more money on those services today than it did before privatisation. The difference is that now a handful of contracts, free from any meaningful competition, are also making huge profits out of our taxes.

We are dealing with a dogma so powerful that simple facts are unable to dislodge it from its throne. That’s because the dogma is making certain powerful people in our society very rich. No wonder, then, that it has also infected aid spending. No wonder that it is being spent on an ideologically-driven project to support private healthcare and education in some of the most impoverished countries in the world. No wonder the Department for International Development is working with the likes of Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Diageo and Monsanto, believing they can help Africa (which grows a good proportion of our food) to develop a healthy and sustainable food system. No wonder they are helping Nigeria to privatise its electricity system, even though anyone who has lived through privatisation here could have predicted higher prices and less jobs, both of which happened.  

Aid has become a tool, then, for driving forward the interests of big business and the market. But it doesn’t need to be that way, and simply abolishing it, allowing people to turn inwards, will make society a worse, not a better place.

So let’s instead imagine what it could look like.

Many people in Britain believe the NHS is the crowning glory of our achievement – taking healthcare out of the hands of the market and big business and running it democratically. It is the lynchpin of a fair society, which encourages equality and democracy, as well as the idea that caring for others is important.

Today we could build on that achievement, not only be turning back privatisation in the NHS before it’s too late. We could also help governments around the world to build decent health systems – not to mention sustainable energy that everyone has access too, good schooling for all and the rest. Spending our taxes building decent public services and democratic food systems should be something we are proud of. 

But if we’re ever to get to there, we also need to change the way we talk about aid. We need to stop thinking of aid as the government equivalent of ‘giving to charity’. It isn’t – or shouldn’t be – considered charity, any more than funding the NHS or our education system is charity. It’s about redistributing from those who have, to those who don’t. it’s about building a fair and decent global society where we don’t watch people starve through lack of resources. It’s about starting to put right the damage our governments have done to world over decades and centuries – through wars and unfair trading systems and outright plunder. And that can only be done when priorities aren’t driven by our own government, but by democratic decisions made in the countries which is receiving those funds.

The current amount spent on aid is a pittance compared to what’s necessary for this task. As long as people see aid in isolation from the wider struggle for social justice, or as a charitable donation, that won’t be possible. Neither will it be possible as long as supporters of aid gloss over the fact that those currently in charge of the aid budget are committed to using it to fill the coffers of consultants and big business.

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