By Jamie O’Dell
In Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s most recent spending review, the decision to cut the overseas aid budget by £4 billion has stood out for winning cross-party support amongst voters, with only 18% of the UK thinking that this reduction is the wrong call.
This was the subject of discussion on BBC 2’s Politics Live show, which featured Stroud MP Siobhan Baillie. The discussion mirrored how conversations on ‘aid’ typically go: one side used the classic, but economically dishonest, household budget analogy by saying ‘you don’t borrow money to give to charity’ while the other argued that these are disadvantaged people we have a moral duty to help.
This is indicative of the ways that we normally consider the concept of ‘foreign aid’ and how this ‘aid’ is undertaken. Take, for instance, the BBC reports on these cuts that featured pictures of air drops and crates of supplies behind their headlines. These are images that we all can understand and through which we learn about this, supposedly, one-way flow of resources.
Here, through what is called the ‘Media-Aid Complex’ we learn about and reinforce our ideas of the Global South (or “Third World’ to use a slightly more popular but problematic phrase) as an area of poverty and violence in need of intervention, and ‘repair’ through humanitarian aid dropped from cargo planes. This Media-Aid Complex has been driven by public fundraising campaigns that trip over themselves to push images of poverty in the Global South in order to raise more money for their organisation.
If you’ve ever been told, or told someone, to finish your/their dinner and not waste food because somewhere there is a starving kid in Africa, you’ll understand the impact of these images upon everyday life and how we see poverty and starvation.
Jacob Rees-Mogg’s recent declaration that UNICEF, the UN’s Children’s Emergency Fund, should be ‘ashamed of itself’ for its ‘political stunt’ in launching its first domestic emergency response in the UK in its 70-year history and stating that they should focus more on, for instance, Nigeria, demonstrates just how much poverty and ‘aid’ in our eyes is Africanised.
The actual facts of the matter, however, present a different story. According to Department for International Development (DFID) statistics for 2019, humanitarian aid – of which food aid is only a portion – made up only 15% of UK Official Development Assistance (ODA). Meanwhile, a total of 32.5% of the UK’s ODA went as contributions to the core budgets of multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations and its various agencies.
Regarding tracking expenditure and ensuring each penny is accounted for, bilateral donors such as DFID are also well known for being strict on their audits and measurable indicators in order to track where their money goes and what supposed impact it has.
Despite these accounting standards, however, enshrining the target of spending 0.7% of the UK’s GDP in law in 2015 has changed the focus and targets of DFID. This change in focus has created an imbalance between attention paid to the amount of funding being distributed and the quality of the projects being funded.
What is clear in the direction in which ODA and the UK’s approach to the Global South is being taken, however, is that none of these critiques of the 0.7% target seem to be factoring into the decision to cut it. Rather, this is a politically motivated regressive step that will have negative impacts upon countries in the Global South, as, for all that is wrong with aid, simply cutting and running is no way to solve anything.
These cuts also come alongside the government’s desire to ensure that ODA money is spent in line with the UK’s ‘political and commercial interests’ and on countries with which its ‘development, security, and economic interests align’. This is not new however, as ODA has always been linked to national self-interest, or, at the very least, has never been a purely ‘humanitarian’ venture.
Take the UK’s funding of institutions like the World Bank, which uphold and expand neo-colonial trade regimes which drain more wealth and resources from the Global South then we ‘donate’. Alternatively, take the humanitarian aid sent to Yemen and question what the point is in sending this ‘aid’ and collectively patting ourselves on the back, if the UK government continues to allow UK made weapons to be sold to the Saudi Arabian regime, causing so much of the suffering in Yemen.
Additionally, the power imbalance between those ‘giving’ and ‘receiving’ ODA is the same power imbalance that existed during the era of direct colonial control. One Stroud based former-DFID employee I talked to when writing this article exemplified this perfectly through an incident they witnessed while working in Somalia, where a British government official who was unhappy with the President of Somalia stated “We bloody well pay for his government so he’ll do what he’s told for a while”.
This example is also representative of many other conversations I have had with both development professionals and people from areas with humanitarian or peacebuilding interventions. The same attitudes that the official in Somalia exhibited being recorded in Iraq, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Having outlined some of the underlying problems with its portrayal, we can now start to see the fundamental issue with ‘aid’ and the idea of humanitarian assistance that we have when engaging in these public discussions. The real issue does not lie with the spending targets we set, but with the very foundations of the ‘aid’ and ‘development’ sectors and the colonial economic structure of the racial capitalism we live within. The results of this being the continued maintenance of the inequities that exist between and within the Global North and Global South.
We tell ourselves a narrative that presents the ‘West’ as the civilised key for the betterment of non-Western peoples, presenting Western actors as ‘only the firefighter and not the pyromaniac’, while refusing to even notice the real fire in the first place.
So what do we do? Stroud is a relatively small corner of the UK and when reading this as an individual it is easy to feel either exasperated or dis-empowered. Donating to charity or advocating for more UK ODA to be spent is how we often think we can make the most significant and direct personal difference because it is how the media-aid complex tells us we can make a difference.
Furthermore, with the initial impacts of the climate emergency being felt harshest in the Global South, the need for urgent assistance in dealing with and recovering from disasters is likely to be more pressing than ever. So I am not advocating for disengagement and throwing the baby out with the bathwater, to steal a phrase from Olivia Rutizibwa.
So this is not to pass judgement on those, like Baillie, who support the 0.7% target. Rather, it is to highlight that we need to be educating ourselves out of arguments that present aid as either our moral duty or unaffordable charity as well as the context in which this ‘giving’ takes place and power that it represents. This means finding new forms of global solidarity that acknowledge this context and work to dismantle, rather than support, it.
This means changing how we think, how we learn and who we listen to; whose voices and opinions are given power and precedence within the debate and absolutety move away from the media-aid complex that does such harm.
This is not to try to present or claim to have an exhaustive list of solutions, but it’s a starting point for reconsidering our approach and considering how and why, rather than how much, we give ‘aid’, and what impact this has.