The aid question

There are challenges to the 0.7 per cent target, but the debate should be wider than a number.

The latest challenge to Britain's 0.7 per cent aid spending target offers little that is new. While the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee Report marshals a fairly balanced argument against the imposition of arbitrary spending targets, what we see in the press is the by-now familiar "shoot from the hip" critique of the aid budget as bloated and ineffective. The result is an escalation of calls for an extension of the austerity agenda to the world's poor - no surprise there... On the other hand, the fact that a debate which directly affects hundreds of millions of lives is reduced to percentage points should be a cause for concern, no matter which side of the aisle you sit.

Support for the 0.7 per cent largely transcends all three major political parties in Westminster yet there are and always have been question-marks about the robustness of the target and whether unequivocal support for it is actually the best political strategy for those committed to sustaining the UK commitment to aid. It is, after all , a 40-year-old target, based on an idea of how much rich countries should cough up to meet the financing gap facing poor countries. It bears no relation to current needs (which are still significant and are changing) nor to rich countries' ability to pay (which is also significant). The target has all too often focused the attention of campaigning organisations on the quantity over the quality of development assistance and diverted much-needed political capital away from demonstrating the role that aid can play.

That said, the UK's international development budget affects more people than any other government budget. The idea we cannot afford it is nonsense and the UK aid pound works incredibly hard on behalf of the world's poor, often in very difficult circumstances. If we want to make a change in the world then the taxes we pay towards development are probably the surest way to do that. tThat shouldn't be underestimated for either its moral value or economic and diplomatic benefit. Plus it gives us a mechanism to hold other countries to account and ensure that the fight to end poverty is a global endeavour.

Solutions to global problems are far from simple. If money alone was the answer to global poverty then we'd be in a different place now. It takes more than just schools, vaccines and roads to deliver sustained progress. You also need more private investment, more effective teachers, more technology, innovation and better-quality leadership. Spending money on development without involving developing country governments and their citizens in decisions about how to spend it will only create unsustainable systems and unsustainable solutions.

Effectiveness and value for money are vital components of the aid conversation; it can never be a case of quantity over quality. The government's creation of an aid watchdog has started a process of cultural change and it has been met with a serious effort from NGOs to show results and value for money. Beyond the headlines the House of Lords committee's critique is reasoned but remains behind the curve of current action. Continuing critical thought about the future of Britain's aid relationships is essential, but political and media attention must find a way beyond the narrow prism of 0.7 per cent if the debate is to wake up to the challenges now framing global development.

Dr Alison Evans is the director of the Overseas Development Institute

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser