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UK – Flood Defences or Foreign Aid: A Fool’s Argument

February 13, 2014

Up to now I’ve resisted writing about the inundation of Britain’s seafronts, valleys and floodplains. But as the umpteenth storm sweeps across the land, dumping a month’s worth of rain upon us, causing elderly people and Shetland ponies to be rescued and disabling infrastructure we have long taken for granted, there’s one aspect of the emergency that troubles me.

Before I sound off, I should declare an interest – or rather a non-interest. Though I live in Surrey, I’m not one of the unfortunates whose ground floor is several feet deep in effluent-charged floodwater. I’m lucky enough to live a good bit above sea level, so it would take a monster tsunami or the melting of both polar icecaps for the murky waters to reach my doorstep.

What has seriously raised my hackles is a campaign by a nasty rag called the Daily Mail to divert funding from Britain’s overseas aid budget into the creation of new flood defences. It was first mooted by Nigel Farage, the leader of an amalgam of special interests, closet racists and xenophobes, homophobes and God-knows-what-else-phobes masquerading as a political party – The UK Independence Party. The Mail then hoisted the flag, and yesterday announced that 100,000 people had signed the petition.

It seems to me that popular reaction to disaster largely depends on the speed with which it unfolds. If it strikes suddenly – as it did in London on 7/7 – the disaster usually sparks an instant response – heroism, compassion and generosity of spirit. Recrimination usually follows in the aftermath.

If it develops gradually with a cumulative intensity – as is the case today – the finger-pointing starts during the event rather than after it. And if it happens within striking distance of a general election, the real-time response to the crisis tends to be calibrated by political calculation – what plays well with this or that section of the voters. So both blame and restorative action are dished out with one eye on the polling booths. Politicians of all stripes make pious noises about now being the time to deal with the emergency, not to debate its origins and perpetrators, while doing exactly the opposite through unattributable briefers, mavericks and proxies.

So the Daily Mail, acting as Farage’s proxy, has a go at foreign aid. The natural home of hypochondriacs, alien abductees and xenophobic Tories seems be moving towards endorsing UKIP at the next election. Certainly UKIP’s utterances seem ever more fine-tuned to be in harmony with the Mail readership. Either way, the attack on foreign aid is opportunistic, unprincipled and illogical. Prime Minister David Cameron should resist it.

Yes, there’s a superficial connection. You could argue that instead of funding efforts to alleviate the effects of monsoon flooding in countries like Bangladesh we should build river barriers and new coastal walls in England and Wales. But there is not a single family in the United Kingdom at risk of death, water-borne disease and economic melt-down every year as millions are in other parts of the world.  Should we really withdraw assistance from populations whose standard of living – even on dry land – is a tiny fraction of ours?

Of course we should look at every project we support through foreign aid to determine its effectiveness and value for money. And no, perhaps we shouldn’t provide aid to countries that send rockets to Mars. But even in the case of India, we should look at whether we are delivering a benefit that the recipient country is incapable of delivering, or lacks the political will to do so. Why otherwise would we send aid to Syria?

So while I agree that foreign aid should be continually reviewed and reallocated as necessary, I don’t believe that the ring fence around it should be abandoned to suit short-term political expediency.

The Government has access to contingency funds to deal with emergencies. If flood defences are rapidly becoming a long-term priority for government spending, then the cost should be factored into the overall mix of spending and saving that is the perennial concern of thousands of civil servants in the Treasury and the spending departments. If the defence of the realm is clearly threatened, we have no qualms in increasing our spending on soldiers, ships and aircraft even if it means that a few libraries have to close, or that we have to live with less high-speed railway lines. And if we are concerned about the enemy within, we’re quite happy to allocate a few million to the security services if that keeps us safe from the murderous ambitions of jihadis returning from Syria.

To create a link between overseas aid and domestic flood defences is as specious as arguing that we should buy less cars because too many of them are manufactured by foreign companies.

Charity doesn’t begin at home, or at least it shouldn’t. It should begin with those who need it most. Otherwise I don’t see how you can call it charity. And while we can argue that foreign aid is sometimes misdirected, it’s still capable of making a difference to lives that are immeasurably less privileged than those we live in our home country.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of those who signed the Daily Mail petition. They are most likely angry people, especially if they’re entertaining ducks in their sitting rooms. But that anger is being channelled by unscrupulous politicians and newspaper editors with political axes to grind. The thinking is at the same level of rationality as calling for the death penalty to be re-introduced after a particularly gruesome murder. A knee-jerk reaction where long-term thinking is called for.

If the flooding we are seeing today is no longer a once-in-a-century event, then we need challenge many assumptions about the future of our countryside and coastal areas. If it costs millions to re-house the inhabitants of fifty houses in the Somerset Levels, but hundreds of millions to protect them from future flooding, which option makes most sense? If we need to revise our farming techniques to make the land more permeable, how does the cost stack up against dredging rivers and destroying the natural habitats of our wildlife? And ultimately why are we so often presented with alternatives rather than complementary measures?

If the current weather is the result of climate change, regardless of what measures we take globally to reverse the effects, it could still take a hundred years for those measures to make a difference. And I’ve not heard any scientist able to tell us whether the actions on the table now will return us to the pre-industrial Arcadia to which we seem to aspire.

As the birthplace of the industrial revolution, we in the United Kingdom have been both the beneficiaries of industrialisation and one of the leading causes of climate change – if as, seems likely, that change is proven to be man-made. So it’s a bit rich for us at this stage to disclaim all responsibility for the underprivileged beyond our shores to whose plight we have directly or indirectly contributed.

We are not yet at the stage where we declare every man for himself. So I sincerely hope that the British electorate will see Farage’s argument as a red herring, and treat it with the contempt it deserves.

From → Politics, UK

  1. Great article.

    What I find most disturbing is the way that a UK-based disaster has, for some at least, seemed to render those suffering further afield (the intended recipients of foreign aid) somehow less important than those closer to home, or at least more easily ignored.

    While it’s extremely unlikely that the UK is about to defy all manner of international laws and ethical codes to divert foreign aid money to British flood victims, the mere fact that people are calling for such action is a frightening reflection of how we think about others.

    It’s one thing to call for aid for your English neighbours, but quite another to do so at the expense of those in far greater need at far greater distance.

    I’ve written more about this on my own blog:

    • Thanks Katie. I like your piece too. We seem to violently agree on this, though you’re not as nasty to UKIP as I am!

      Good luck with the blog.


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