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Is Global Britain all about us?

June 17, 2020

In one of yesterday’s least surprising pieces of non-COVID news, Boris Johnson has announced that the Department for International Development is to be merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Now on one level I couldn’t give a damn about this piece of bureaucratic chair-shuffling, and I doubt if the recipients of Britain’s foreign aid could either. What actually matters is that that the Foreign Office’s anschluss of DfID seems more an ideological statement than a reorganisation. That it’s the ultimate triumph of the charity-begins-at-home brigade.

The absorption of DfID gives the government the chance to cut the purse strings without anyone noticing, as foreign aid becomes just another budget item, to be ranked aside Maltesers and ambassadorial Toyotas. For times is ‘ard, if you hadn’t noticed.

But before we say goodbye to our dedicated providers of largesse to needy countries (since many of them will surely lose their jobs) perhaps we should consider what foreign aid is in aid of.

Is it the last guilt-ridden RNA of benevolent imperialism? Our last opportunity to show the natives how to stand on their own two feet? Or is it, as David Milliband and David Cameron might argue, an essential vehicle for projecting soft power? A symbol of the very Global Britain that our new masters are so keen to create?

If, like me, you’re a reader of the London Times, you might be persuaded to believe that those who dish out the money at DfID are nincompoops. This morning, it regaled us with stories of misspent funds, such as the £285 million it spent on an airport at St Helena which largely doesn’t work because they didn’t realise how windy it would be.

But isn’t a series of dumb investments evidence of the incompetence of the decision-makers rather than the invalid logic of devoting a small percentage of our GDP to worthy development projects beyond our shores? I would be interested hear the views of the statue destroyers, who wish to expunge all monuments related to our shameful enrichment through the slave trade. Would they feel that it’s right and proper that we give something back after denuding half the world of its wealth and natural resources in order to build our railways, battleships and fine civic buildings?

Perhaps one of the most eloquent advocates of an independent DfID is Simon Bishop who in January, as Boris’s inclinations became widely known, wrote in the Guardian:

There’s a good reason why the latest Portland index on soft power notes that merging DfID into the Foreign Office is “unlikely to be positive” and why Joseph Nye, the Harvard academic and founder of the soft power concept, said: “The best propaganda is not propaganda.” A merger with the Foreign Office or loss of DfID’s secretary of state would signal a hollowing out of our longstanding poverty-first commitment, an end to Britain as a development superpower, and a resulting significant loss of soft power.

We all also want taxpayers’ money to be spent well. As Bill Gates said: “DfID is widely recognised as one of the most effective, efficient, and innovative aid agencies in the world”. It is also the most scrutinised government department, with its own watchdog, the independent commission for aid impact, in addition to a select committee and the national audit office – and it ranks third globally in the aid transparency index. The Foreign Office ranks 40th out of 45.

DfID’s world-class reputation also means it attracts development officials at the top of their game, who are passionate about helping the world’s poorest and tailoring programme spend accordingly. It is fantastic that the prime minister personally champions “12 years of quality education” for the world’s poorest girls, but only DfID staff have the skills to help the world achieve this. Despite DfID spending more than 70% of the government’s aid budget, a disproportionate number of “aid scandal” stories splashed in the papers come from aid spent by other departments. UK aid works because DfID works.

The whole article is here.

Well he would say that wouldn’t he, you might comment, given that Bishop worked for Justine Greening when she was the DfID minister in the last government. But I’m not so cynical. Though this is only a short-term concern, I think that to entrust our aid budget to the bone-headed Dominic Raab and whatever equally numbskull successors Boris might appoint at the Foreign Office will suck any motivation and initiative that remains among surviving DfID staff.

If you are of an ideological bent, you might ask why we don’t leave foreign aid in the hands of billionaire philanthropists and charities. That’s a valid opinion, I guess, unless you consider that Britain’s billionaires, in contrast to the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, are notoriously tight-fisted, preferring to see us dragged out of the European Union rather than put their hands in their pockets to help people in corners of the world where Brexit is an utter irrelevance.

And as for Britain’s international charities, many of them are dead on their feet, not just because COVID has starved them of funds, but because people don’t like to donate to organisations whose staff sexually abuse the victims of disasters, as was the case with Oxfam.

I don’t know whether the motivation behind this reorganisation is penny-pinching or the result of some libertarian ideology, but I for one am quite proud that my country spends 0.7% of its GDP on foreign aid without, as the Chinese do with their Belt and Road policy, demanding a massive quid pro quo.

Though that money can only alleviate in a small way big problems in many parts of the world, it does make a statement that “it’s not all about us”, and that as one of the major industrial nations, without talking about guilt and reparations, we do have an obligation to help those who are not as fortunate as us.

But perhaps such sentiments no longer have a place in the values of the new Global Britain. And perhaps it really is all about us.

I hope not.

From → Politics, Social, UK

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