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

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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