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

Getty
Show Hide image

I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution