The real question about overseas aid

It's not the UK's aid budget that hinders development, it's free-market capitalism.

The Daily Mail continued to push its anti-foreign aid sentiment this week, with its headline on Wednesday: "Billions in overseas aid puts people off giving cash to charity". The paper reports on research published by Politics.com and YouGov@Cambridge which suggests that one in five voters will never donate to an overseas aid charity because they think the money is wasted.

The survey's leading questions point to a foregone conclusion, namely that people don't support the target of giving 0.7% of our GNI (gross national income) to international development. But there's a much-needed debate to be had in what lies beneath public opinion.

Here is the most difficult question in international development circles today: is aid really all its cooked up to be? Raising such a question in political circles draws in sharp breaths from everyone except the Tory hard right. This is the issue, we're told, where we have to support Andrew Mitchell and David Cameron, not undermine them.

For me, the 0.7 per cent aid commitment is a no-brainer. It's a long-standing pledge that goes back over 40 years, having been the very first campaign of the World Development Movement in 1970 (one that we've never quite achieved). It's the least we can offer for all of our years of pillaging resources from the developing world. But it's a distraction from the real business of development.

While many of the sceptics hold an unfounded view that the money all goes to corrupt governments, they may be partially correct in feeling that the money itself has not been used wisely over the years and that funding goes to supporting the business of aid, rather than helping the intended beneficiaries.

Why is it, after 50 or 60 years of "development", that so many people continue to be desperately poor?

The answer is that it's not the money, but rather it's the policies of neoliberal market-based capitalism that have led to years of impoverishment of the developing world. UK development policies have pushed an agenda that has favoured big business over local accountability and local people.

In practice, this means a solution like large scale agriculture for export has displaced local people, taking away their ability to produce their own food; or in the area of health policy, that big pharma solutions (like vaccinations - as per the much-lauded Bill Gates initiative last week) prevail over local public health initiatives. It means that business extracts all of the wealth, and doesn't pay any taxes.

We can vaccinate millions of children. But if those children's families continue to be impoverished because of systemic corporate tax evasion, lack of property rights, and the power of global monopolies, those vaccinations are utterly useless.

This free market dogma also lies behind the cuts agenda in the UK. Having asset-stripped developing countries for years, private solutions, not solid public solutions developed by and for the grassroots, dominate the aid agenda. And this is why people should all be at least a little bit cynical about aid. What we really need are just policies that will enable the developing world to overcome poverty, not be forever at the mercy of a rich world elite who advocate private solutions that will only ever benefit those same rich world elite.

Deborah Doane is Director of the World Development Movement

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle