Today, MPs vote on whether to support the Government’s plans to tie overseas aid spending to national borrowing and debt. If the measures pass, then the UK will be all the lesser as a global player, as aid spending will increase only when national debt is falling, and borrowing is no longer used for day-to-day spending. Given current economic turbulence, MPs such as Andrew Mitchell argue this would mean the nation will “kiss goodbye” to the aid commitment.
The debate on aid and Britain’s international presence is central to No.10’s agenda. In March of this year, the Prime Minister’s advisor Professor John Bew conducted the Integrated Review, in order to form a framework for government policy for the coming decades. This was intended to “enable the UK to shape a more open international order where democracies flourish.”
Yet, four months later, the Conservative Party is divided on how international it actually is. The Government is spiralling to focus on fiscal prudence and domestic concerns. Yes, it is a government’s duty to look after its citizens first; some contend this is the very purpose a nation-state exists for; and the state is a political entity created for the betterment of those within its borders. Yet, as the rebels point out, our commitment to aid spending was a major policy platform that saw the Government elected. The 2019 manifesto pledged, and pledged wholeheartedly, to continue to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on aid:
We will proudly maintain our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on development and do more to help countries receiving aid become self-sufficient.
Aid is contentious. The imagined post-Cold War world of universal Western liberalism leading to the ‘end of history’ has failed to materialise, and our approach to international development, born from naïve ideas of throwing money at problems until they go away, is failing with it.
There have been significant improvements in how the UK invests in international development over the last decade. Instead of handing cash to unsavoury regimes, the UK takes a leading role in multilateral projects where funding is managed by an accountable international coalition, works through trusted partners such as charities, or negotiates oversight on projects agreed with governments. Similarly, increased competency helps to instil confidence domestically that British tax money is being spent transparently and is not simply ending up in a dictator’s Swiss bank account.
Across the world, nations are racked by fiscal and social instability following Covid-19. In the global south, the effects hit hard; the UN Conference on Trade and Development reported in July 2020 that economies across Africa could contract by 7.8 per cent. This is combined with longstanding challenges.
In a series examining taxation across the continent, EY found there are 49 countries worldwide that collect less than 13 per cent of their GDP, and 20 of them are to be found in sub-Saharan Africa. The International Monetary Fund suggests 13 per cent is what countries need to collect to “fund basic state functions” and invest in “physical infrastructure, education, health and other development initiatives”. In more disruptive events, insurgents fetter Nigeria, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Mozambique, and Somalia.
To act with determination and focus in combating worldly ills, this same Government merged the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the Department for International Development in a display that showed those in power considered foreign aid to be another means of British soft power, evidenced by the Prime Minister’s the comment that, “this will unite our aid with diplomacy”.
Those in favour of cutting aid are presented as practicing realpolitik for the better of local communities, while those clinging to the idea that we should maintain aid are following an internationalist belief. However, simply cutting back on short-termism is not practical in the long-running game that is international politics.
This is why the divide is so wide and impassable; both sides see themselves as pragmatic as well as morally correct.
While Britain may no longer be a global power, it can still be a global power broker, acting as an intermediary between adversaries, a leader on global issues like climate change and international tax evasion, and a friend and trading partner to as many other nations as possible. Britain has a proud history of financing endeavours for the greater good. From paying in full for the Prussian and Russian armies that fought Napoleon in 1812 to policing maritime trade routes, we have long wielded power via cold cash with the aim of freeing markets and peoples.
We undermine ourselves and our national mission when we slash the international development budget and sneer at our civil servants as do-nothing Sir Humphreys. Yet our international development budget remains one of the most generous in the world, second only to Germany which spends 0.73 per cent and our civil service (as frustrating as it can sometimes be) is still remarkably efficient compared to bureaucracies in other countries. Instead of talking ourselves down, we should be capitalising on our strengths.
Ultimately, the shoring up of friendly administrations abroad with foreign aid must be pursued. Providing advice and experience from Whitehall and NGOs, the UK can demonstrate best practices, educate, and advise the leaders of the future. In cultivating a socio-economic setting where life and governance are good, private capital and property are accumulated by hard worders, and money is well spent on development and public services, we will show our real, physical, heartfelt, commitment to helping those who live in this world.