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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.