Friday, 16 August 2013

When will the Foreign Aid debate become honest?

One of the things I detest most is the current debate about foreign aid. It seems to me that just about everyone who has something to say on the subject embodies the worst possible characteristics of our nation. What I find even more obnoxious is that they simply ignore the truth of the situation. At present there are a whole crop of ill informed commentators, mostly towards the hard right, squealing loudly because the coalition have set aside 0.7% of the GDP to be allocated to foreign aid.

These commentators list example after example of countries receiving aid, where there are either despicable tyrants gobbling up the cash, corrupt middlemen syphoning off most of the money or nations with expensive vanity projects wasting money whilst we are expected to dig into our strecthed pockets. The same commentators say that we shouldn't send money abroad, when there is poverty at home that could be dealt with.

Firstly lets deal with the 0.7% target that Mr Cameron has set. Actually I do have a problem with this. I don't believe that you ever achieve anything very useful by setting a target and then looking for things to spend it on. Just suppose there was a truly awful disaster of biblical proportion, where tens of millions of people were homeless, destitute, freezing and starving. Should the UK say "sorry we can't help, we've spent our 0.7% budget?". What we should aim to do is set the budget according to need. We should fund projects which fall into 2 categories 1) extreme need or 2) sustainability. If there is a drought, famine or plague we should spend whatever we can to alleviate it. If we can set up schemes that take communities out of dependency, we should also do that. I was a trustee of a charity involved in Sri Lanka. After the Tsunami, we had a fundraising drive to raise money for fishing boats to replace those destroyed in the Tsunami. This charity enabled hard working fishermen to stay out of benefit dependency and helped communities rebuild. Teaching people to read and write, building sustainable models of community healthcare and vaccination programs are all things that in the long term are good investments.

But that isn't the whole story. Much of what gets spent as part of the foreign aid budget is no such thing, in my view. Often the money is allocated to ensure British businesses pick up work in these countries. Disturbingly, often this money is related to purchases of arms. Sometimes it is other technology associated with the mechanisms of repressive states. It could be training programs for local police or army or backup and logistical support. Much has been made of the money given every year to India, at a time when India is the worlds fourth largest economy and has its own space program. Some of this money is committed under long term schemes to develop the country. The success of the Indian economy in some ways vindicates this.

The latest country to fall under the foreign aid spotlight is Nigeria. This country has huge natural wealth and oil reserves. There is also great wealth and the country is developing its own space program. Right wing commentators shreek that we should not give a penny to such countries. Who do they think is involved in extracting and refining the oil? Step forward BP and Shell, British companies. Other major foreign powers such as China are going around the world, splashing the cash and buying influence to ensure their supplies of energy and raw materials. They see foreign aid to such despots as "good for business" and "vital to secure supply chains". Whilst it may strike many people as completely immoral, the sad fact is that our foreign aid is part of the grubby little business that ensures you get a nice telly, petrol to fill up your car and tasty Kenyan beans with your roast beef.

But perhaps the biggest element of hypocricy of all is the same right wing commentators, who say "We shouldn't spend a penny abroad, when we have poor people in the UK" are the people who call those very people scroungers and spongers. Just suppose Cameron announced tomorrow  that he was scrapping the foreign aid budget and was allocating all of that cash to lift families on benefits out of poverty, what would the Tory party and the Tory press do? They would go completely bonkers. We would have page after page of stories of scroungers and Cameron would soon find himself out on his ear.

One final thing we should consider. Many of these countries such as Nigeria, India, Bangladesh, etc have one thing in common. They were ruled by Great Britain. During the period of the Empire, Great Britain was the richest country in the world. Sadly very little of this wealth trickled down to the "colonies". During two world wars, troops from all around the Empire joined the fight. In North Africa, Rommel was defeated by an Imperial Army. In Burma, it was mainly Indian troops who defeated the Japanese. We often read stories of the Gurkhas bravery. This fine regiment is a relic of the Empire, one we are very fortunate to retain. Many of the best soldiers in the army today are Fijians. Walk around London and look at the magnificent buildings erected in the Victorian and Edwardian era. The Museums, the Railway Termini, the Libraries. All of these were funded by the wealth generated by the Empire. The purpose of the Empire was purely to make Great Britain prosperous. Unlike Hitlers Nazi empire or the USSR, we imposed no political ideology those who we subjugated. They could do what they liked so long as Trade could progress unhindered. We only cut up nasty when people wanted to determine their own future. Having spent a couple of hundred years plundering the wealth of everyone else, I think it is completely immoral for these hard rightists to say "nuffink to do wiv us, Guvnor". If you list all of the most dangerous political situations around the globe, Israel/Palestine, North/South Korea, India/Pakistan, Iraq/Iran they have one thing in common. At some point in the last hundred years the British have had a significant role in the politics of those nations. We have a debt to pay. I for one, believe that debts should be paid back. Do you?

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