The great aid betrayal

17 May 2019

Last summer, Theresa May made headlines on a trip to Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, where she declared in the most bullish terms yet the government’s objectives for international aid. The Prime Minister said she was “unashamed” about ensuring that our aid spending “works for the UK”. On tour with an entourage of 29 businesspeople, May laid out her goal of Britain becoming the number one investor in Africa through private investment, announcing a slew of new business deals to the tune of £300 million. Shortly after, Penny Mordaunt, former secretary of state for international development, gave a speech arguing that the British public should see “a personal return” from the aid budget. International development policy should bring together “compassion and capital” and enable “doing good while making money”.

Underneath this rosy vision of a win-win world, in which the interests of British corporations, British finance and the world’s poorest are perfectly aligned, is a clear political agenda. Ever since the Brexit vote, the UK government has been busy trying to set up new opportunities for trade and investment beyond the EU. Faced with an ailing domestic economy, new markets across the global south have become a strategic focus for the government’s economic planning, especially new markets for the City of London and its often damaging financial products. In addition, the government increasingly sees the protected aid budget as a mechanism through which to pursue other foreign policy objectives.

Doubling down

The problem with this approach is that it threatens the integrity of aid altogether. As enshrined in British law, the goal of UK development aid is eradicating poverty overseas. Yet even before either May or Mordaunt’s interventions, parliament’s international development select committee was already warning that the government’s approach to aid involves “an insufficient focus on poverty reduction and on helping the very poorest and most vulnerable”. They warned that girls and women, disabled and young people were all threatened by DfID’s market-led economic development strategy. This backs up Global Justice Now’s campaigning in recent years to expose the UK aid-funded New Alliance for Food Security & Nutrition, which undermined small-scale farmers by liberalising seed laws, and aid-funded promotion of private schools which leaves the poorest pupils unable to access education. Yet the government’s rhetoric and practice suggests it has paid scant heed to these concerns – rather, it is doubling down on using aid to promote big business.

A flagrant example of this was exposed recently, when the energy watchdog Platform announced that aid money has been used in 16 projects to expand the fossil fuel industry across the global south, with specific support for expanding fracking in China. This may well provide a fillip for British business interests – British fossil fuel giant BP is, after all, known to be exploring natural gas extraction in China – but it is a reckless threat to a planet threatened by climate breakdown, not to mention the impact on local communities.

A darker dimension to the UK’s aid agenda has emerged through the way it has become entangled with foreign policy objectives. The legal charity Reprieve recently raised concerns that aid money to Pakistan is being used to support a repressive justice system, such that there is an “appalling prospect that British taxpayers are unknowingly complicit in torture and death sentences”. This money comes from the Conflict Stability and Security Fund (CSSF), which has half of its budget funded by UK aid. This comes as the latest in a catalogue of alarming investments by this fund – Global Justice Now has previously published research showing that the CSSF has funded human rights abusing security services in Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Burma.

Power and profit

Faced with an approach to aid that increasingly prioritises commercial and ‘security’ interests, we should consider why there’s a need for aid in the first place. Recent research by the Indian economist Utsa Patnaik estimates that between 1765 and 1938 India lost $44.6 trillion to its British colonial master. Historic wealth extraction on such a staggering scale is what underlies the wealth of former colonial powers such as the UK – and this continues today.

Through tax havens, repatriation of profits and other means, more wealth still flows from the global south to the north than goes the other way. So it’s particularly ironic that a major focus of new aid projects is focussed on securing post-Brexit Britain’s role as a source of financial products to Africa. In this context, aid should be seen as one element of the reparations for historic plunder of the global south by northern states and corporate elites. Converting aid itself into a tool of power and profit is a betrayal of this duty. It is up to us to resist it.

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