The impossible injustice of Talha Ahsan’s extradition and detention

Talha Ahsan was extradited to the US in 2012 after spending six years in high security prisons in the UK. Like Gary McKinnon, he has Asperger Syndrome, and is now in a supermax prison in Connecticut. Ian Patel explains how this was able to happen.

In theory, what has happened to Talha Ahsan should not be possible. It might come as a surprise to many to learn that Ahsan, a British national judged to be “extremely vulnerable” by a psychiatrist, is currently in pre-trial detention in a so-called “super-maximum security” prison in the United States.  Ahsan is being held at Connecticut supermax prison, which is the subject of a recent documentary by Yale Law School entitled The Worst of the Worst.

Why is this impossible? Despite being extradited to the US under the terms of a 2003 Treaty with the US (according to which no prima facie evidence is necessary), Ahsan is protected by national and international law – specifically the UK Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights, among other international protections against torture. Since supermax prisons would undoubtedly be judged illegal were they to be proposed in any European state signed to the European Convention, Ahsan should have been protected from what he now endures and is likely to endure for decades to come.

Before his extradition Ahsan made a joint petition to the European Court of Human Rights to have the extradition blocked, protesting the conditions he would face in America. The story of his petition and its rejection shows a disturbing violation of uninfringeable human rights protections.

Ahsan’s story is particularly troubling since he has Asperger Syndrome and the same associative risks as Gary McKinnon. Ahsan is 33 years old and grew up in Tooting, south London.  He attended The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, taking his degree in Arabic.

When the US formally requested the extradition of Ahsan on 15 September 2006, the request alleged involvement in the commission of four felonies between 1997 and 2004; specifically, “conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists”, “providing material support to terrorists” and “conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim, or injure persons”. This material support is alleged to have been provided by Ahsan’s supposed participation in an Islamic media website (that at the time of his arrest had been offline for four years) one of whose servers operated out of Connecticut. Ahsan spent over six years (without bail) in high security prisons in the UK before finally being extradited to the US – along with Abu Hamza, Babar Ahmad, Adel Abdul Bary and Khaled al-Fawwaz – on 5 October 2012.

Sections of the British press portrayed Ahsan as an “unwanted guest”, a natural partner to Abu Hamza. I met with Hamja Ahsan, Talha’s brother, to discuss Talha’s early life.

Ahsan’s Bengali parents settled in Tooting, London, in 1964. As a child Talha won a financially assisted place to Dulwich College in south London. His literary ambitions and facility were obvious from an early age and his intellectual influences developed to be eclectic, ranging from Linton Kwesi Johnson to Seamus Heaney. He has a reverence for the English literary canon, particularly admiring the poetry of Ted Hughes. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is one of his favourite novels. At HMP Long Lartin he translated a tenth-century Arabic poem, Above the Dust, by Abu Firas Al-Hamadani, who was held captive in Byzantium. On the day of his arrest he had a job interview to be a librarian.

Ahsan is now gaining recognition as a poet, recently winning the Koestler Trust’s 2012 Platinum Award for his poem “Grieving”, which is taken from his second, forthcoming book of poems. Ahsan’s first book of poems, This Be the Answer, has brought him support and praise from writers A.L. Kennedy and Michael Rosen.

His poetry is luxuriously observant and its erudition guarded. Sometimes it is sad:

it is not that the
world isn’t full of
beautiful things,
only that some are rare …


Hamja (Talha's brother) and the remains of Talha's
prison possessions from HMP Long Lartin

Pressure is mounting against supermax prisons and other “correctional” institutions which place prisoners in solitary confinement. In supermax prisons, prisoners are in open-ended isolation for 24 hours a day and, in certain cells, denied natural light. Prisoners have monitored and extremely restricted contact with their families and no access to educational programs. Perhaps the most devastating aspect of supermax prisons is the fact that they are designed to prevent any meaningful contact or communication whatsoever with other people.

In his groundbreaking research on supermax prison conditions, Craig Haney writes that prisoners are subject to “a totality of isolation” and “complete idleness for extremely long periods of time”. Even interaction with prison officers is prevented by technological sophistications such as computerised locking and tracking of movement. Meetings with doctors and psychotherapists are conducted by video-conference in order that human interaction is kept at nil. On the basis of Haney’s research the United Nations has stated that “indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement, in excess of fifteen days, should also be subject to an absolute prohibition”.

Up to 25,000 people are held in supermax prisons across 40 US states. Supermax conditions were originally justified as a means of isolating “the worst of the worst” – that is, the most violently dangerous prisoners – from the rest of a prison population. Today however many prisoners without histories of physical violence are subject to leg-shackles during showering among other out-of-cell physical restraints.

 In 2012 opposition to supermax prisons and solitary confinement included a report by Amnesty International, three civil-rights lawsuits, a Congressional Hearing, a documentary by former hostage Shane Bauer, and a photography project on children in solitary confinement.

So far this year, the New York State Bar Association has passed a resolution calling for a radical curtailment of the use of solitary confinement, The Federal Bureau of Prisons has announced “a comprehensive and independent assessment” of solitary confinement practices, and a coalition of over 35 organisations has petitioned the United Nations to investigate the use of solitary confinement in New York State prisons. The states of Colorado, Illinois, Maine, California and Mississippi have recently taken steps to reduce the number of prisoners confined in solitary (as much to reduce expenditure as satisfy recent advocacy campaigns).


A mere 11 days after Ahsan was flown to the US, Gary McKinnon’s extradition to the US (for “the biggest military computer hack of all time”) was blocked by Theresa May. McKinnon had claimed his diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome should be taken into consideration before a ruling on his extradition was given. The United Nations agrees with him, reporting that “prisoners with mental health issues deteriorate dramatically in isolation … Some engage in extreme acts of self-mutilation and even suicide”. Indeed over fifty percent of suicides in US prisons are committed in solitary confinement. Despite being independently assessed as a suicide risk and diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in June 2009, Ahsan’s extradition was ordered to proceed regardless. (As a devout Muslim, the issue of vulnerability to any concept of suicide would never have been one that he himself could countenance being advanced on his behalf.)

In a Home Office letter to McKinnon’s legal team, May concludes that extradition “would give rise to such risks to [McKinnon’s] health, and would, in particular, give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life, that a decision to that effect would be incompatible with his human rights under Article 3 [protection against torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment]”.

May’s careful duplicity and manipulation of human rights standards in her cross-dealings with Ahsan and McKinnon are astonishing. Compare her pious references to the 1998 Human Rights Act with her opening gambit to the Conservative Party Conference seven days before: "Wasn’t it great to say goodbye – at long last – to Abu Hamza and those four other terror suspects on Friday?”.


Before his extradition, Ahsan had appealed to the High Court to have his extradition order overturned, arguing that his case ought to be heard in a UK court. When this appeal was rejected Ahsan made use of the final instance of legal protection and redress available to him, an individual petition to the European Court of Human Rights.

Under Article 25 of the European Convention on Human Rights “any person, non-governmental organisation or group” can petition the European Court of Human Rights alleging a violation of their rights. The Court then decides whether to pursue a particular case, which in the last instance is decided by the Grand Chamber of the Court. Such “right of individual petition” is a unique means by which an individual can bring their own legal system into regulation with the norms of international justice. Many have availed themselves of this right. In 2010 the Court received 61,300 applications, a figure that testifies to the stature the Court has attained.

States that are party to the European Convention on Human Rights are beholden to the Strasbourg Court’s decisions. Under Article 15 of the Convention, however, states can “derogate” or formally withdraw from a limited number of their obligations to the Convention in certain prescribed circumstances such as “in time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation”. For example, in late 1970s the UK derogated from the Convention specifying a terrorist threat emanating from Northern Ireland, and would derogate again in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In its counter-terrorism efforts, the UK derogated from Article 5, allowing the government to increase its powers of arrest, detention and internment.

However, a “derogation” does not abolish state responsibility to international law. Torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Article 3) is prohibited “in absolute terms … even in the event of a public emergency threatening the life of the nation”. The argument against torture is so cogent as to be universally applicable to all states in all circumstances.

The Strasbourg Court has served the crucial function of protecting against excessively repressive national legislation. For example, after the murder of James Bulger, Home Secretary Michael Howard extended the minimum tariff on the imprisonment of children from eight to 15 years. Howard had made the decision on the basis of public fury and a petition signed by 278,300 people expressing the view that Bulger’s murderers, despite being children, should never be released. The Strasbourg Court overturned the increased tariff in 1999, ordering the UK to remain within international standards for juvenile justice.

The Court also has a laudable record in protecting the rights of criminal suspects and has not balked in blocking orders of extradition and deportation in UK cases in the past. In 1989 the Court protected Jens Söering from extradition to the US (where he would have faced the death penalty); in 1996, Karamjit Singh Chahal from deportation to India; and in 2012, Abu Qatada from deportation to Jordan. In December 2012 the Court ruled that the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” of Khalid El-Masri amounted to torture. So why did the Court neglect Talha Ahsan?

Ahsan’s petition to the Court claimed violations of several Articles of the Convention, with the emphasis on an Article 3 violation. Some of Ahsan’s complaints were judged inadmissible, but the Court did consider whether Ahsan’s detention in a supermax solitary confinement facility (specifically the Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado) would violate Article 3; whether his mental health would be so affected as to violate Article 3; and whether he was likely to face a sentence so detrimental to his person as to violate Article 3.



The crucial aspects of Ahsan’s petition concerned the restrictive conditions in supermax prisons (ADX specifically), the damaging periods of detention spent without human contact, and the concerns surrounding his mental health.

Simply put, on these issues the Court had to decide whether supermax prison conditions stayed within the threshold set by Article 3 or whether they violated it. At the outset, one might have said that Ahsan’s chances were good: the Court’s case-law provides precedents in which solitary confinement of prisoners can be shown to violate Article 3; moreover, the Court has held on many occasions that the detention of a person who is ill may raise issues under Article 3 and that the lack of appropriate medical care may amount to treatment contrary to that provision. Of course, each case is unique and the decision is a process that “depends on all the circumstances of the case, such as the duration of the treatment, its physical and mental effects and, in some cases, the sex, age and state of health of the victim”.

In its final judgement on Talha Ahsan’s petition the Court ruled “no violation of Article 3 as concerned the possible detention at ADX supermax prison”. Despite psychiatric assessments from both external and internal prison psychiatrists describing Ahsan as “extremely vulnerable” and his diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome, the Court ruled no violation with respect to mental health conditions, noting that “those [same] mental health conditions have not prevented [Ahsan] being detained in high-security prisons in the United Kingdom”. With respect to the severity of punishment Ahsan faced, the Court referred simply to “the serious nature of the allegations made against these applicants, and the full range of protections available in the United States (including the Eighth Amendment’s protection from grossly disproportionate sentences)”.

In its final reasoning in the Ahsan case the Court seems to have either relied on UK national policy for direction or to have simply dismissed out of hand claims of US carceral violations. The judgement does not satisfactorily engage the question of whether a vulnerable, non-violent prisoner needs ever to be held in solitary confinement, since solitary confinement can only be justified for security, disciplinary or protective reasons.

Crucially the Court accepted statistical evidence submitted by the US Bureau of Prisons on the kind of supermax prisoner program Ahsan would likely face. As Ahsan’s legal team would state after the Court’s decision, it was “in large part on the basis of disputed statistics” that the Court ruled that “isolation in a US Supermax prison is ‘relative’ and will become a violation of Article 3 ECHR which prohibits torture, only if it extends indefinitely”. A total of 26 US human rights organisations protested to the Court that it had “based its decision in part on information provided by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that was insufficient and misleading”.

With unmerited optimism, the Court judgement suggests that supermax prisons provide “recreation, education, religious expression and engagement with the outside world” – but at the same time rather tellingly concedes that “communication with other inmates” is available “admittedly only through the ventilation system”. The Court judgement refers to the “psychiatric services” available in supermax prisons, yet this turns out to equal only two doctors for 3,200 inmates.

The comparisons the judgement makes between high-security prisons in the UK (in Ahsan’s case, HMP Long Lartin) and supermax prisons are disingenuous. HMP Long Lartin does not practice prisoner isolation, it has fewer restrictions on exercise and provides better educational facilities. It does not severely limit prisoners’ access to family members.

In its judgement the Court comments that the Eight Amendment US constitutional protection against “cruel and unusual punishment” is directly comparable to European Article 3 protections. Yet the New York City Bar Association stated in 2011 that “in many cases supermax confinement constitutes torture under international law and according to international jurisprudence and cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution”.

A detailed third-party report submitted to the Court by Repreive, Interrights and the American Civil Liberties Union maintains that the Eight Amendment provides “only limited protection” since the legal avenues by which a prisoner might report mistreatment are harder to access in the American system. Most worryingly, the report points out that Article 3 provides “much greater protection against mental suffering and psychological harm arising from conditions of detention” than that provided under the Eighth Amendment.

The Court’s judgement that the extradition of Ahsan and his co-defendants does not violate Article 3 has been met with extraordinary objection. Supporters include the UK’s leading human rights lawyers Gareth Pierce (who represents Ahsan) and Geoffery Bindman (who has criticised the UK-US Extradition Treaty). Supporters also include former UN advisor Philip Alston, Noam Chomsky, and America’s foremost constitutional legal scholar, Bruce Ackerman. The Court’s rulings appeared in the face of a submission by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez.


It is well-known that international human rights bodies (most obviously the UN Security Council) are subject to the vested interests and machinations of superpowers. The Strasbourg Court’s judgement on the Ahsan case needs to be seen in the context of strained UK-EU relations, superpower interests, and an ideological struggle against figures seen to embody “international terrorism”.

Talha Ahsan’s case was put before the Court in 2012 (it passed its final decision in April 2012). By chance this same period saw David Cameron assume the rotating presidency of the Council of Europe, giving him the opportunity to address (on 25 January 2012) the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

Cameron’s speech, delivered to the Assembly three months before the Court’s decision, reveals the proper context in which Ahsan’s case should be seen. Cameron began his speech by emphasising that his chairmanship would focus on the reform of the Court before giving way to his misgivings about individual petitionary rights:

The Court is properly safeguarding the right of individual petition, and it is a principle the UK is committed to. But with this comes the risk of turning the court into a court of the fourth instance. Because there has already been a first hearing in a court, a second hearing in an appeal court and a third in a supreme or a constitutional court. In effect, this gives an extra bite of the cherry to anyone who is dissatisfied with the domestic ruling even where that judgement was reasonable, well-founded, and in line with the Convention …

With the candidness of barely guarded outrage, Cameron would then move on to discuss the specific quarrel he had with the Court. For, a mere week before Cameron’s speech, on 17 January, the Court had blocked his attempt to deport Abu Qatada to Jordon, ruling that this would breach Article 6 (the right to a fair trial) "given the real risk of the admission of evidence obtained by torture at [Qatada’s] retrial".

In his speech Cameron intones against the folly of European obstruction of the fight against international terrorism, gesturing to the radical reforms this obstruction now demanded:

Protecting a country against terrorism is one of the most important tasks of any government. Again, no one should argue – I would never argue – that we defend our systems of rights and freedom by suspending those freedoms. But we do have a real problem when it comes to foreign nationals who threaten our security. In Britain we have gone through all reasonable national processes … including painstaking international agreements about how they should be treated … and scrutiny by our own courts … and yet we are still unable to deport them.

It is therefore not surprising that some people start asking questions about whether the current arrangements are really sensible. Of course, no decent country should deport people if they are going to be tortured. But the problem today is that you can end up with someone who has no right to live in your country, who you are convinced – and have good reason to be convinced – means to do your country harm … And yet there are circumstances in which you cannot try them, you cannot detain them and you cannot deport them.

By these words, the Court, whose judgement was barely three months away, was put on notice for acquiescence in the Ahsan case.

On first hearing, Cameron’s speech might be dismissed as toothless posturing. Yet the twelve months preceding Cameron’s 2012 address had seen sustained criticism of the Strasbourg Court by UK senior politicians and by sections of the British press. Hostility had grown particularly intense in 2005 with respect to the Court’s decision (in the case of Hirst) regarding prisoners’ voting rights, an issue which continues to foment aggression towards the Court. In February 2011, the influential think-tank Policy Exchange released a major report setting out a plan for UK withdrawal from the Court and the Convention, if not the Council of Europe and the European Union. The conciliatory outgoing President of the Court, Nicolas Bratza, would admit in 2012 that “the UK leaving [the Court] would be very damaging”.

This aggression towards the Court was, among other things, stoked by blocks to extradition. As far back as 1989 the Court had blocked extradition on the basis of an Article 3 violation. As a yet another Conservative-backed report put it in 2011, referring to the case of Chahal, “the Strasbourg Court has set a rather low threshold on what may constitute, in particular, degrading punishment”.

In other words, individual petitions asking for the Court’s protection from an Article 3 violation – the exact nature of Ahsan’s petition – had been signally opposed by UK government figures in the run up to Ahsan’s petition to the Strasbourg Court. Then, in January 2012, Cameron would add to this momentum against the Court by invoking the struggle against terrorism specifically.

Although the Strasbourg Court is a judicial body independent of the European Council, Commission, and Parliament – and the politicking that surrounds them – it would be naïve to suggest that Cameron’s vehement address to the Court did not have political aims beyond a reformist agenda for the Court. The fractious and defensive qualities of the speech recall strained UK-EU relations, which also threatened to make the UK’s relationship with the Court unsustainable.  Cameron’s speech has half a populist eye to conservative anti-EU sentiment, and accordingly the British press would conflate anti-Court sentiment with anti-EU sentiment.

In this light can we see Ahsan’s case as a Rubicon moment for the Strasbourg Court? Was the Ahsan decision an opportunity for the Court to make a reconciliatory gesture to the UK, reassuring the UK government that it respected its vested national interests, and that it was prepared to recognise exceptional terrorist threats? Or, alternatively, would the decision cue the UK’s withdrawal from the Court, the Convention, and even from the Council of Europe itself, in the name of the fight against international terrorism?


Of course, another superpower’s interests were also at stake in the Ahsan decision. A largely unknown fact about the case is that on March 1 2012, the month before the Ahsan judgement was given, Strasbourg judges – including two members of the Court Chamber who judged on the Ahsan case, Lech Garlicki and Nicolas Bratza – visited Washington to take part in a closed conference with US Supreme Court Justices. The first of its kind, this closed-door conference – Judicial Process and the Protection of Rights: the U.S. Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights – brought together members of the Strasbourg Court with Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Sonia Sotomayor. Also present were the UK government’s in-house legal counsellor, Derek Walton, who was representing the UK in Ahsan’s European Court case, and the vastly influential Harold Koh, who was serving as Obama’s appointed Legal Advisor to the State Department.

There are several things here that raise concern: first, the simple fact that there was a closed-door meeting that included sitting judges of the Strasbourg Court on an open case in which the US was implicated. More concerning still is the fact that the conference discussed “rights protection” – a key issue about to be decided in Ahsan’s appeal by the same judges in Strasbourg – and the parallels in rights protection between the US Supreme Court and the Strasbourg Court.

Crucial to the Ahsan case was the question of whether the US Eighth Amendment provided the same protection as Europe’s Article 3, and it is therefore deeply troubling that sitting judges attended a conference designed to emphasise similarities in legal practice between Supreme Court justices and Strasbourg justices.

Superpower influence is not always sustained in observable or overt ways. Diplomatic assurances that there are reasonable legal protections in place, and that a state’s highest judges are concerned about rights protections, is another means by which a superpower can influence events. While UK Law Lords have warned against “diplomatic assurances” from non-Western states known to practice torture, they are unlikely to apply the same censure to US polices.


Talha Ahsan's father, brother and mother. Photograph: Aimee Valinski

It appears that the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights that there was no Article 3 violation in the Ahsan case was influenced in some way by the unique combination of state pressure from two superpower governments. And it is at least arguable that the Court’s decision was based more on diplomatic assurance than on judicial resolution.

Hamja Ahsan was hopeful that the Strasbourg Court would protect his brother. In the days before the Court’s final decision, he listened to Gary McKinnon’s Song of Silence on repeat late into the night. But the Court did not even spell Talha Ahsan’s name correctly, let alone uphold his rights. Since the decision Hamja has been recognised for his campaign work on his brother’s case.

The UK and US will continue to attempt to protect themselves from censure by invoking Constitutional traditions and common law protections – “reasonable national processes”, in Cameron’s words, in the face of threats to national security. Yet it is clear that these long-established constitutional procedures that ensure the protection of individuals have been cast aside. Norms of state practice are now based on the exceptional threats posed by terrorism, for which supposedly no legal protections can (nor ought) to apply. This new order of state practice has allowed a violation of international law to be concealed by judicial obedience to state interests.

Although the legal proceedings against Talha Ahsan are scheduled to begin in October 2013, it is unclear how long he will spend in pre-trial detention in the US – it could be years – in addition to the six years he has already spent in prison without trial or evidence of his guilt. His family reports that Ahsan continues to read broadly and build his literary career despite his extreme confinement. If he is found guilty, however, and his sentence is imposed to its maximum of life imprisonment, his future lies inside the walls of a supermax prison. 

The campaign for justice for Talha Ahsan can be found online here

A still from the Yale Law School film "The Worst of the Worst" about the prison where Ahsan is being held.

Dr Ian Patel works in the law department at King's College London. He specialises in criminal justice, criminal law, and international human rights. He is a fellow at the International State Crime Initiative.

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Aid in whose interest?

The government appears to be raiding the aid budget to subsidise big business and the security state.

In March 1988, Scottish aristocrat and Defence Minister to Margaret Thatcher, George Younger visited was part of a controversial offer of £200m of the UK aid budget in exchange for Malaysia signing a £1bn arms deal.

The government promised public money to subsidise UK construction giant Balfour Beatty to build a hydroelectric dam named Pergau in Malaysia’s mountainous north east.

Malaysia’s national utility, the World Bank and auditors at the Overseas Development Administration, the UK aid ministry, questioned the human development value of the project for the middle-income country, finding its costs to be “markedly uneconomic" compared to other options then available.

But these warnings were summarily dismissed.

Thatcher, who I believe saw aid not as a vehicle for eradicating poverty but as a means to advance Britain's commercial and geostrategic interests, wanted the arms deal.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad wanted an infrastructure project in Kelantan state, which was held by a rival party, which he wanted to wrest votes from.

But the National Audit Office soon got wind of the deal and parliamentary committees started to ask awkward questions of those involved.

The press published dozens of articles and the Pergau scandal was born.

Newspapers soon unearthed other white elephant development  projects resulting from the tying of aid to private British interests that did little for reducing poverty but were a boon for the contractors involved.

The Permanent Secretary to the ODA (Overseas Development Administration, now Dfid – the Department for International Development), Tim Lankester, said that Pergau was “unequivocally a bad buy”, “an abuse of the aid system” and “not a sound development project”.

The World Development Movement (renamed Global Justice Now) won a judicial review in 1994 against the government in the High Court which ruled the payment of aid “for unsound development purposes” illegal.

The Tories reacted, not by untying aid from UK vested interests, but by slashing the aid budget as punishment for the bad press – it seems that Thatcher saw little use for aid that could not be used to subsidise private interests.

Labour came to power in 1997 with an agenda to reform how Britain did development. It established a better-funded and politically-stronger aid department, the Department for International Development (DFID), with a seat in cabinet.

It scrapped the Aid and Trade Provision, the official mechanism by which aid was used to subsidise British company contracts, and in 2001 untied aid from UK commercial interests. The International Development Act of 2002 for the first time legally committed the UK to spending aid only on poverty reduction.

But since the Conservatives won a clear majority in last year’s general election, the government has been wilfully unlearning the lessons of Pergau.

Out of the hobbling coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne have unpicked Labour’s reforms by effectively retying aid to the interests of the private sector and its perceived security interests.

They appear to have deprioritised poverty reduction as the principal purpose of the aid budget. “There is a real risk of the budget being recaptured by commercial interests as it was in the 1980s,” Sir Tim Lankester told me recently. “[International Development Secretary] Justine Greening has been making sure British commercial interests get more and more of the cake.

“What’s remarkable these days is the huge contracts going to the big consultancies to advise government and manage projects – The Adam Smith Internationals. The Crown Agents and others.”

November’s aid strategy “tackling global challenges in the national interest”, written largely by the Treasury rather than by Dfid, announced that aid would be a tool to “strengthen UK trade and investment opportunities around the world”.

The retying of aid spend is sold in the strategy in the same way the Conservatives sell austerity and privatisation at home.

Using the language of “prosperity” and “economic opportunity” (“inequality” was not mentioned once in the 22-page document), the government spins the dubious argument that communities in the world’s poorest nations share the interests of both UK business and the UK security state.

This “what’s good for us is good for you” aid strategy’s promotion of the UK interest over those of the poor grossly undermines the government’s legal duty under the International Development Act.

The aid strategy leaves it to the concurrently published National Security Strategy to enumerate what these imaginative interests are: to “protect our people”, to “project our global influence” and to “promote our prosperity”.

To achieve these ends, the government has allotted half of the aid budget to conflict-hit states, which are expected to be the states Britain has helped destabilise in recent years: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya Syria and Yemen.

The government also successfully lobbied the OECD to widen the official definition of “Official Development Assistance” (aid) to include military spend on counter-terrorism and expand the use of aid subsidies for private – and inevitably British – projects in the developing world.

Over the course of this Parliament, the Tories will triple to around £5bn the amount of aid to be spent outside of Dfid. The main beneficiaries of this diversion of aid are the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the foreign office (FCO) and the business department (BIS). These departments are considerably less transparent than Dfid and, according to the National Audit office, spend most of their aid on middle income countries, rather than low-income countries.

This slide towards using aid to subsidise British business and as a slush fund top up its military and security budgets means that development projects devoted to public health, education and countering the agricultural and ecological destruction wrought by climate change, will suffer.


Take the growing spend by Dfid on private consultants and accountancy firms.

Under the Tory austerity programme Dfid’s staff has been slashed, which means there is less public capacity to allocate, monitor aid projects.

To compensate for this under capacity the government has farmed out the aid budget in bigger and bigger parcels to private contractors and accountancy firms to do the work for a profit.

Dfid spends some £1.4bn directly through private contractors and several times more than that through its payments to multilateral development banks that recycle British aid back through the private sector.

In 2014, Dfid said 90 per cent of its contracts are awarded to British companies, strange for a department that claims to have untied aid. Almost no contracts are signed directly with NGOs or contractors in the Global South.

In 2014 alone, it spent £90m through a single private consultancy, Adam Smith International (ASI), which that year declared £14m in profits, a profit that doubled in two years on the back of Dfid and British taxpayers.

ASI, which was spun off from the neoliberal think tank Adam Smith Institute, is in the business of privatising public works in the Global South from Nigeria to Afghanistan and deregulating the Nigerian economy under its “Business Environment” stream of Dfid’s £180m Growth and Empowerment in States scheme.

In 2014, Dfid spent £42.9m on the services of one accountancy firm alone (PwC), in spite of its part in the LuxLeaks tax avoidance scandal. It is this tacitly sanctioned flight of wealth that costs poor nations (non-OECD) three times more each year in tax avoidance to tax havens than they receive in aid from rich nations (OECD) according to the OECD itself.

Contrary to the public perception, aid is for the most part not “given” to poor countries. At present, only 0.2 per cent of the world’s humanitarian aid goes directly to local and national non-government agencies and civil society organisations. This is despite a consensus that these groups are the most effective engines for development.

The increasing use of private contractors and large bilateral financial institutions to get aid out of the door constitutes nothing less than a capture of the aid budget by corporate interests, which also advise the government on where to direct future aid flows.

Under this government, aid has become less a tool for development but a rent for a veritable industry that concentrates the knowledge, skills and finance in the companies and institutions of rich nations.


Take the amount of British aid that subsidises the fossil fuel industry and therefore promotes global warming, which affects the poor considerably more than the rich because they lack the resources to adapt.

The effects of climate change are already biting. The rising frequency of drought on the world’s semi-arid regions of the world, including the Middle East constitutes, to borrow a term from Professor Rob Nixon, a “slow violence” enacted by industrialised nations on the poor.

Our refusal to take commensurate action on climate change means that water stress is rising across the world, which impairs development and has even been linked to conflict in Nigeria and Syria.

In April, I visited Somaliland, which is experiencing the worst drought in living memory along with the rest of east and southern Africa. Agriculture has collapsed, the animals are dying and migration is rising fast.

Many of these climate refugees are washing up on the shores of Italy and Greece. Survivors in are being sent back to Turkey because there is no international protection available to a subsistence farmer without water or a parent who cannot afford to feed their children.

In 2009, the UK pledged at the G20 to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies but instead it has been using public funds to increase them, according to the Overseas Development Institute.

Using aid money to give the fossil fuel industry a leg up and imperil us all to the onslaught of global warming entrenches inequality and hampers sustainable development.


Last year the EU signed a €1.8bn aid package with the governments of 20 African nations, including Eritrea, a totalitarian state financed by slave labour, to keep Eritreans in their country and to accept planes filled with their citizens who are denied asylum in Europe.

Clearly, this aid money is being spent principally the interests of the donors and not the world’s poor.

But aside from using aid to forcibly return people at risk of human rights abuses, this aid holds development back in other ways. Migration is the biggest driver of development because economic migrants from poor countries who work in rich countries back remittances that amount to three times the international aid spend.

“Migrants are the original agents of development,” William Lacy Swing, director of the International Organization for Migration, told the World Humanitarian Summit in May.

In effect we are spending public money legally allocated for reducing poverty on keeping the world’s poor mired in it.


Take the UK’s “preventing violent extremism” agenda – borrowed, of course, from the Americans – under whose banner projects can be now funded with UK aid.

Britain’s successful lobbying of the OECD – in opposition to other large donor states, including Sweden – to include some counter-terrorism military spend in the definition of aid is of deep concern.

The OECD already allowed for the provision of aid to prevent conflict and promote peace but this new extremist lens, as opposed to the purely conflict lens, allows the aid spend to become politicised.

After all, governments across the world call their political enemies “extremists” or “terrorists”, but the term is rarely ascribed to governments themselves, even when they brutalise their populations.

The government seems ready to exploit to this change, having set up its new £1bn aid-funded Conflict Stability and Security Fund (rising to £1.3bn in 2020), of which 90p of every pound is spent by the FCO and the MoD.

The stage has been set for Britain’s security state to raid the aid budget to pursue the ill-conceived and expensive military strategy du jour.

The government’s agenda to spend aid in conflict-hit and fragile states on counter-terrorism projects has a bad precedent. The US development agency USAID spent billions in post-2001 Afghanistan, which was embezzled or spirited out of the country.

Even worse, the aid was destabilising. “Instead of rescuing the [political] transition process, aid contributed to its failings,” said the NGO Saferworld in a report this year on the lessons learned from the American state-building strategy in Afghanistan. “Large aid volumes overwhelmed local absorptive capacity and sustained a rentier state . . . The influx of aid funds and the competition over the illegal economy strengthened predatory and opportunistic elites that the US and its allies tried to reform.”

The British government risks falling into the American trap of using counter-terrorism aid to remake conflict-hit fragile states into democracies.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), the government’s own aid watchdog, has criticized the government’s failure to learn lessons from the past, adding that its security initiatives are “naïve” and perform “poorly” in terms of both effectiveness and value for money.


In another dangerous case of aid not being used in the interests of development, the Tories are using it to establish private healthcare and education across the Global South.

Publically provided, free and universal health and education of the type we enjoy in Britain should be pursued across the Global South because it reduces inequality and strengthens democratic accountability.

Private provision of these services in the words of turns these basic needs into commodities whose price variable and unaffordable to poor and marginalised sections of society.

In Britain we should be internationalising the principle of free-at-the-point-of-use health and education, a privilege hard fought for by a generation of Labour politicians interested in social justice and the condition of the poor.

Instead, Dfid’s Education Position Paper calls for “developing new partnerships across the public-private spectrum” and commits Dfid to promoting low-cost private schools “in at least four countries”.

Its flagship education programme of the Department of International Development, in partnership with Coca Cola and PwC, is the £355m Girl’s Education Challenge, which rolls out private education across 18 countries, including 15 African nations.

In signing up to last year’s Sustainable Development Goals last year, Britain committed to “achieve universal health coverage”, which is directly undermined by a development agenda which favours fees.


The privatisation of our aid budget alongside its entrapment by enormous multilateral financial institutions is symptomatic of the wider erosion neoliberalism is enacting on the British – and global – economy.

In 2016, aid should be about empowering the losers of neoliberalism across the Global South to cut poverty and reduce inequality. This means placing more emphasis on working directly with the poor, colonised and, more-often, the women of the Global South.

Aid should not be spent on the five and often six figure salaries of the global financial elite, nor should it be tied to Britain’s commercial interests to provide public subsidy for private interests. If we wish to subsidise our private sector, that’s fine, but should do it using export credit and not disguise it as aid.

I can already hear the outcry from development experts that spending money at the grassroots is harder to track and the shrill headlines that taxpayers’ money is being wasted on bee-keepers in Kyrgyzstan or on a Somali radio drama that gave tips to illegal immigrants (all real headlines from the Murdoch press).

But I would accept more “waste” by employing more Dfid civil servants to monitor a greater number of smaller grassroots aid projects on a trial-and-error basis than I would accept the other now ubiquitous form of waste that we do not call waste: the subsidising poverty barons, who enrich themselves off the aid ‘industry’.

This is not a particularly radical agenda. Aid under Labour’s Clare Short, Dfid’s first head, targeted the grassroots and there is a growing consensus among the establishment that we must return to this model to make development more effective and give poor people ownership over projects rather than imposing them from above.

More power and capital needs to go into the hands of grassroots groups.

We must recall the lessons of Pergau and redesign our aid system so that it is not captured by industry or distant elites for their own profitability but a means by which the poor can bring about transformative social change for themselves. 

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and shadow secretary of state for international development.